The Return of Sunset Shimmer

by Never2muchpinkie

First published

Sunset returns through the portal when it opens again, wanting to make amends for the past. However, things get complicatred when she discovers a familiar dark artifact. Lured by a promise of power, can Twilight save her from herself a second time?

Note: This story was conceived of long before the second EQG movie was created, so it's a bit outdated compared to later information that emerged. It just took me a long time to finally write it.

It should have been a simple affair. Wait for the portal to open again. Apologize for the past to Celestia. Move on as friends. Sunset Shimmer has been waiting for the opportunity to make amends for her past misdeeds, having learned of the magic of friendship from her new friends. She wants to deal with her regrets and right her wrongs.

She never expected that things could go so horribly wrong in two days. It should have been simple, but a discovery of a familiar dark artifact renders things more complicated than she could have ever foreseen. All she wanted was the power to protect her friends from their enemies, but now she is the enemy. Can Twilight Sparkle and her friends save Sunset Shimmer from herself a second time?

Prologue: Through the portal

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It was a cold night. The full moon looked down upon the world. In the light of the solitary eye of the sky a woman with long hair the color of a roaring flame walked to a familiar place. She eyed the school she had gone to for years since she had abandoned her initial home in pursuit of something new. However, that wasn’t what she was truly interested in. It was a place nearby, under the statue of a horse.

Sunset Shimmer took a deep breath. “Thirty moons. The time sure has flown. I guess…it’s finally time to answer for the past.”

Lifting up her hand she placed it towards the marble of the statue’s base. To anyone else it was just a statue, but for the next three days it was a portal to another world. Her original world.

“Wait!” came the familiar voice, making her stop. She turned her head and saw her friends running towards her.

Sunset felt conflicting emotions of happiness and despair.

“I told you she’d be here,” said the buoyant voice of Pinkie Pie.

“Why’d ya just leave without telling us where ya were goin’, Sugarcube?” asked Applejack.

Sunset hesitated, saying evasively, “I told you… I said I’d likely be going back to Equestria when the portal opened again.”

“Yes, darling,” said Rarity, “but we’re your friends! How were we to know that that was where you had gotten to?”

“Weren’t you even going to say goodbye?” asked Rainbow Dash frigidly, her arms crossed. “I thought we’d be worth that much.”

“Don’t you care about us, Sunset?” asked Fluttershy, pulling a pitiably sad face.

Despite the accusations being thrown at her Sunset couldn’t help but smile slightly. They really did care about her, and were sad at the thought of her leaving. Turning to face them she said, “I’m sorry, everyone. I know it was wrong to go it alone, but, well…” She blushed a bit as she turned away slightly, a silly grin on her face.

“Yeeeeesssss?” said Pinkie Pie.

“Well… I just love you guys so much that I was afraid if I had a big send-off I might not be able to make myself go, even for a measly three days. Can you forgive me?” she said, looking at them again with a carefree smile.

Her response to their question broke the tension between them. Pinkie was the first to break away from the group, running towards her and nearly tackling her to the ground as she cried. “I’m gonna miss you too!”

The others were a little more restrained, but they came over too, hugging her tightly.

Sunset grinned, her heart feeling lighter than air, to feel the love around her. When they all pulled apart the feeling began to fade.

“What’s wrong?” asked Fluttershy, noticing Sunset looking down and rubbing her arm.

Sunset remembered the main reason she was so reluctant to have them be there when she left, and it only made it that much harder to be honest now. She had finally found real friends, and she didn’t want to leave with bad feelings between them.

“I… I don’t know what’s going to happen when I go there.” She looked listlessly at the ground. “I’m feeling a bit scared, honestly. What if Celestia doesn’t accept my apology? What if she decides to banish me because of what I did last time?”

She closed her eyes, but the tears came down regardless as she stated her biggest issue. “It’s my original home. It’s where I grew up. What if… what if things go so great that I… I want to stay?” She began shivering, feeling on the verge of sobbing. “We’ve gotten along so well, and I’m terrified that you’ll hate me for it. I’m scared you won’t want to be friends anymore!”

Applejack put a hand on Sunset’s shoulder. “Shoot, Sunset. Is that what’s been botherin’ ya all this time?”

Sunset sniffed and nodded, not wanting to look up and see their expressions.

Fluttershy walked over to her, giving her a big hug. “Don’t be silly. Distance is no obstacle to friendship. We’re behind you all the way.”

“That’s right!” said Pinkie strongly, joining in. “We’ll always be friends no matter where we are.”

“You’ve been away from home for far too long, darling,” said Rarity. “Who are we to stop you?” She joined in as well.

“Celestia knows ya changed ta the good side,” added Applejack. “And I think that’s all she was waitin’ fer. I doubt she’d banish ya when ya been self-imposin’ yer own banishment on yerself fer so long.” She added herself to the hug also.

“And don’t forget!” Rainbow said brightly. “You might NOT decide to stay. You got a whole three days to resolve things and make up your mind. Maybe you’ll decide you miss us way too much to stay!” Rainbow completed their group hug.

Once more Sunset felt their love surrounding her. Looking back it felt so foolish how much her fears had been ruling over her. She should have just trusted her friends and been honest with them. Joyful tears came down her eyes as she freed her arms and hugged them back.

This time when they broke apart the feeling stayed. “Thanks, you guys,” said Sunset, wiping her eyes. “I mean it! Thank you for everything.”

“Don’t ya worry none about it, Sunset,” said Applejack. “Ya go do whatcha need ta do.”

“I’m sure everything will turn out just fine,” said Rarity. “If we’re just like our Equestrian counterparts, then Princess Celestia will be wise and reasonable like our Principal Celestia.”

“If you don’t come back after three days we’ll just assume you’re having the superest, funnest, most amazingly spectacular time EVER!” said Pinkie excitedly.

“We’ll all miss you a bunch, Sunset,” said Rainbow, looking like she was holding back tears.

Fluttershy had no such reservations, her tears flowing freely. “And even if you decide to stay you’ll always be with us right here,” she put a hand to her chest, “right in our hearts.”

Sunset was a little overwhelmed by their support. She could barely hold back her tears. She turned her back on them. “I… I need to do this now, or I don’t know if I’ll be able to make myself go.”

“Bye, Sunset!” “Goodbye!” “We’ll miss you!”

All of them sent their parting words to her as she stepped forward toward the statue, lifting her arm. As she knew her hand did not meet cool stone but phased through it. “Goodbye, you guys!” Throwing away the last of her hesitation she jumped through the portal completely.

Whether she stayed or left she knew she had friends waiting for her on either side, and it was enough for her to know that.

Chapter 1: Murky past

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Twilight Sparkle yawned, shaking her head as she tried to stay awake. She only had one more chapter to read in the latest book Celestia had assigned her to read.

Spike placed a lantern on the table to ease her strain. Despite the passing of time he really hadn’t grown that much since their previous trip through the portal. He had grown a few inches, making him taller than the Cutie Mark Crusaders, but still not as tall as a full grown pony.

“Thank you, Spike,” said Twilight, patting his head.

“No problem, Twilight!” he said happily, giving her a quick salute.

As Twilight began to read again there was a knock on the door, and Twilight turned her head. “I wonder who that could be. It’s pretty late.” Her brow furrowed. “Or is it? What time is it, Spike?” She gave her head a shake to wake herself up. “I’ve been reading so long I have no idea.”

“It’s a little after nine.”

“I hope everything is okay. I almost never have guests this late.” She went to the door and opened it, seeing nothing but a brown traveling cloak. The pony, or whatever species they were, had their head down, hiding their face. “Um, hello? Can I help you?”

“…Yes,” came a hesitant voice. “I believe so. I could use your help. You’re the only pony that I can turn to.”

Twilight’s head tilted slightly. The voice felt familiar. She had heard it before, but where? Her brain began cycling through all the ponies she knew in Ponyville, but came up empty.

Lifting her head, a green aura pulled the hood of the cloak down.

Twilight gasped in disbelief. “Sunset Shimmer? What are you doing here?”

With an awkward look she said, “Well, enough time has passed. The portal is open again… for the next three days. I don’t know if you want to see me again after what happened, but I could really use your help.”

Sunset’s face was so pitiable that Twilight lost her initial misgivings. “Of course. Come on in and tell me about it.”

“Thank you.”

The two of them walked over to the table, Twilight levitating a chair out for her

Spike had gone to the loft to read a comic when he heard the sounds of two ponies moving around. Curiosity aroused he poked his head out to see who was there. His initial reaction was a shocked cry. He hadn’t forgotten that Sunset had tried to kill Twilight in the past.

Sunset looked up at the noise, her expression drooping as she remembered how much effort she had gone through to prove she’d changed in the human world. Both Twilight and Spike were showing that same kind of distrust of her that everyone else had had when her plans had been foiled back then. And if Twilight and Spike, who had both been there when she had been purified and showed remorse, were acting this way, then what hope did she have of making amends with Celestia?

“Just forget it,” she said dispassionately. “I knew this was all a big mistake.” She turned around and began to head for the door.

“Wait, Sunset!” Twilight called out, teleporting in front of her. Twilight could see the pain in her expression, and it was like a flashback to the past, to the teary eyed Sunset apologizing for what she had done, stating she didn’t know the first thing about friendship.

She let out a small sigh. “Spike. Come down here, please.”

He hesitated for a moment before going down the stairs and taking an empty seat.

Twilight put a hoof on her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Sunset. I think the two of us are just surprised to see you again after all this time. I mean, the last time we saw you in Equestria…”

“I know,” she said miserably, a tear coming down her cheek. “The last time I came here as a thief to steal the Element of Magic to help fuel a plot to overthrow Celestia. I know!”

Spike couldn’t stay suspicious. The self-loathing and despair in her demeanor were far too realistic to be faked. “Well… if you didn’t come here to try again then why are you here?”

“Well… to… to make amends.” For a second she met Twilight’s eyes, before looking back down at the floor.

Twilight took her hoof, giving her a gentle tug. “Come on, Sunset. I’m sorry we all got off on the wrong hoof. I’m ready to listen if you’re ready to talk. Please don’t leave. It really is lovely to see you again. I mean it!”

Sunset looked toward the exit to the library. She still had time. The portal didn’t close until nightfall in three days. If she wasn’t going to try then why go through the trouble of coming back in the first place?

Taking a deep breath she allowed herself to be dragged, and she and Twilight both sat down at the table.

“So what’s going on, Sunset?” Twilight asked when they were situated.

Sunset put her head on her hooves. “I returned to Equestria because I wanted to see Celestia again. After all the pain I put her through I just wanted to apologize and resolve things between us. However… after I came through I found I was too scared to actually face her. After what I did the last time I came through the portal I was frightened she’d blast me out of the room before I had a chance to properly explain myself if she saw me again.”

“Princess Celestia wouldn’t do that!” Twilight said adamantly. “Before sending me through the portal she told me how much she hoped you would return one day. She’ll be overjoyed to see you, especially now that you want to make up.”

“I sure hope so.” Pointing to Twilight with a hoof she said, “You’re the only other one I can trust here. That’s why I came all the way to Ponyville. Celestia trusts you completely, so I know you can vouch for me.”

A slight smile came to her voice as she thought of her friends. “It’s funny, but my heart just feels like it’s soaring when I think of them. After you left they were the only ones willing to give me a chance. Everyone else treated me with contempt and anger. Without their support I think I would have cracked and done something stupid again. I can understand why the Equestrian versions of them had such a big influence on you.”

Twilight felt her own smile start as she thought of her friends. “Yeah, they’re all something else. Each of them has their own diversity’s, pieces that make a powerful whole when we’re together. I never would have come as far as I did without their help.

“As for the princess, I can certainly arrange a meeting between you two if it’s bothering you that much. We can take the first train for Canterlot in the morning and-”

“No! No no no!” Sunset replied, her eyes going wide as she began to sweat. “I’m not ready! I want her to really believe that I’ve changed, and I’d feel much more comfortable with all my friends around me. In this world they’re you’re friends, but they act the same as the human versions in my world.”

“The longer you put it off the harder it’s going to be,” Twilight responded with a bit of sternness. “And if you delay too long your three days will be up before you know it.”

“Um, Twilight?” said Spike.

“Yes, Spike?” she responded.

“Did you forget what tomorrow is? You have your big charity event going on. Why not take Sunset along? If she’s so scared of not being liked then let’s fill her heart up with happy things and show her how friendly Ponyville is.”

Twilight looked over at Spike, sucking on her cheek. “Weeeelll… I guess you’re right. She has been gone from Equestria for a long time. It might be good for her to spend a day here so she doesn’t feel alone. During Nightmare Moon’s return the six of us became fast friends as we trekked to the old castle to find the Elements, so it shouldn’t be too hard to make friends with them here. After all, if they’re basically the same personality wise as the versions in the human world you already know them really well.

“Spike, can you do me a favor?” asked Twilight.

“Sure! What can I do for you, Twilight?” Spike responded.

“Would you mind going for a walk?”

“A walk?” he asked, his eyebrow going up.

“Yes. I’d like to talk to Sunset alone for a little while.”

“But it’s the middle of the night. None of the stores will be open.”

Twilight’s horn glowed red, levitating something from the loft where she slept. “Oh, Spi-ike!” she said in a sing-song voice.

Spike looked up and he began drooling. “Is… is that a fire ruby?”

“Yep. It’s all yours… if you go for a thirty minute walk.”

“Deal!” he said immediately. Fire rubies were the peak of dragon cuisine. Taking the jewel when Twilight dropped it into his claw he stared at it, giggling happily. He waved to them, saying, “I’ll see you later. I’m going to enjoy this… nice… tasty… scrumptious… fire ruby.” He gave it a kiss. With that he walked out, without a single look back.

“I was saving that for a special occasion. I guess this counts, but I haven’t seen Spike talk that lovingly and sickeningly sweet since he last talked to Rarity.” Twilight giggled to herself.

Twilight turned her head to Sunset, who was now looking uncertain again.

“Why did you want us to be alone?” Sunset asked.

“Because I already know you’re having trouble with all of this. I think you’d be even more awkward if Spike was here too.

“So now let’s get down to business. You said that you want me to set up the meeting between you and Princess Celestia, and I have no problem with that. I’m glad that you’re ready to put the past behind you. However, if I’m going to plead your case then I’d like more information. Because there was that strict three day limit Celestia gave me only the important information before sending me off. After I came back I saw that you had changed for the better and that was what was important to me so I didn’t press her for details. So what was it? What brought about this big gap between the two of you that made you go through all those plans?”

Sunset stared at the tabletop, her face twitching slightly. “Well, where do I begin?” She took in a deep breath. “I lost my parents when I was eight, shortly after I had gotten into Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. Because I had nowhere else to stay and Celestia felt bad for my loss she offered me a room in the castle. I was so grateful that I began to push myself harder than I ever had. Although I was talented, I was also a little lazy.

“As my effort increased Celestia could see that my magical abilities far surpassed those of my classmates when I put my mind to it, and she offered to tutor me personally. I was so touched and honored.” Tears began to come down her eyes. “I began to see her as a new mother, someone who loved me dearly and wanted to see me excel. And that made me keep trying ever harder. The more she praised me the better I felt, and life felt so rewarding and amazing.”

Twilight felt a grin come to her face, knowing that feeling well. “So what happened?”

“Throughout the five years she tutored me she was the most amazing pony I knew. She was everything I aspired too. I consistently got top grades in all my subjects, and she would always sing my praises, taking me to exclusive events and introducing me to others who might help me excel when I could walk on my own four hooves.

“But then… something changed.”

“What was that?”

“Well… I don’t know.” She shrugged. “All I knew was that she began to treat me differently. She would still take me to social events and introduce me to others, but she stopped complimenting me and praising me in front of others. I thought I had done something wrong, or I had upset her somehow. Maybe she was expecting perfect grades instead of high nineties. I redoubled my efforts on my lessons, taking in as much information as I could, double-checking all my work before handing it in, and indeed my grades took a bigger upswing.

“I expected her to be impressed, but she still was distant from me. We used to be so close, but now she didn’t feel like that motherly figure I had had in the beginning. I put more and more into my work, but her attitude only grew colder.”

“Did you try talking with her about it?”

“Of course I did. Not at first, because I know even the happiest of ponies can get preoccupied, but she didn’t appear to be treating anyone else differently but me.”

“So what did she tell you?”

“She told me that I wasn’t ready for more advanced lessons because I was missing something important. When I tried to press her for answers she told me it was something I had to discover on my own. She told me to start paying attention to others more, and to use my observations to discover what they had that I was lacking.”

Twilight gave her a meaningful look. Given her past experiences she felt she understood. “Friendship,” she stated. “As Princess Celestia’s student I put my all into my studies for the joy of learning and to impress her, but in exchange for that I ignored or dismissed other ponies outside of her and my family. It wasn’t that I saw myself as above them, but more that the Princess and her commands took more prominence than being friends with others.”

Sunset’s eyes glazed over. “It’s obvious now, but back then I didn’t see it. I looked around and studied, but friends weren’t what I saw. I looked at them only as individual’s, not thinking socialization was the issue. I saw a bunch of rubes; weaklings who couldn’t solve their way out of a paper bag. I saw them constantly asking one another for advice or answers instead of working hard to get the answer themselves. It made me sick that they were taking advantage of Celestia giving them such a prestigious education and they wouldn’t even put in the effort to be self-sufficient.”

Twilight stood up, walking towards her. “Well, like it or not there are ponies who are superior to others in certain areas. That doesn’t make them better than another pony. It’s simply a difference of ability. I was of the same general opinion as you, but I didn’t look down on them for it. I just thought that they had so much wasted potential and thought they needed to work harder.”

Sunset looked up at Twilight. They had been so similar in different ways. Her stomach felt tight and a flush of irritation went through her. In a slightly stiffer voice she continued, “I had hit a wall. Celestia had stunted new education, trying to push me more to socialize, and that made me afraid. And my fear turned me to anger. I thought she was pushing me among the general crowd because I had failed her and she was trying to ease me into not being her student anymore.

“I knew I was great. I knew I was possibly the most talented unicorn alive apart from the alicorns, and after all I had done to earn my position that felt like the final straw. In the many books I had read through in the Starswirl section of the library I discovered the existence of another world. That sounded fascinating, and it caught my attention. I brought it up to Princess Celestia and asked her for more information.

“She told me that the portal only opened every thirty moons, and that she had only gone through once.”

“Princess Celestia went through the portal?” Twilight asked, both surprised and intrigued. She hadn’t heard that nugget of information before.

Sunset shrugged. “There’s not much to say. She said when she went through and she assumed her new shape she was ready to investigate and explore… up until she realized that she was essentially powerless in that world. With no magic and no wings she was more or less equal to any other adult in power.”

“So… she just went through and came right back?” Twilight asked, sounding disappointed.

“She told me that her desire for knowledge shouldn’t come before the safety of Equestria. She didn’t want to let her curiosity lead to her getting hurt and possibly missing the portal back home. Since it only opens for a small time frame that meant if she got stuck there then there wouldn’t be anyone on the throne to act as leader, and that could lead to internal strife and conflict. So even though she wanted to learn more she made her home world a priority.”

“I guess that makes sense,” said Twilight, going to sit down again. “I probably would have done the same in her position.”

“I tried to keep it contained, but I showed too much enthusiasm and she figured out where all my questions were leading to. She forbid me from going through the portal, telling me it was too dangerous and unexplored. It led to a big argument between us. I told her it was my choice what to do with my life and she didn’t have the right to stop me. I… I called her a lot of… unflattering names.” She blushed slightly.

“Celestia remained remarkably calm. The only sign of irritation she displayed was a slight tail flick and losing that ever-present smile of hers. Her voice was incredibly composed, which only annoyed me ever more. Here I was, calling her every bad name known to pony kind, and she didn’t crack even a little bit? I wanted to see her in pain. I wanted her to fight me.

“Finally, I just stormed off, telling her I didn’t want anything more to do with the portal or her.”

A few tears came down her eyes as she remembered that fight.

“Princess Celestia is over one thousand years old,” said Twilight. "I would think by now she’s learned to keep a close watch on her emotions. After all, as an alicorn, exploding in anger would be a much greater danger to everyone than any other race of pony. The kind of harm they could do to everybody around them is exponentially greater than any other.

“However, Princess Celestia is still a pony like the rest of us. Shortly after my ascension she told me that things like Nightmare Night, where her sister’s corrupted form became like a joke, or having to control the moon every night, were painful for her. However, she IS our leader, and the most powerful of all of us. She HAS to maintain a professional demeanor, or it could lead the ponies under her rule to panic.”

She put her head on her hooves. “She never even told me these things during my tutelage. She only revealed it to me after I became an alicorn, to begin to drum into me that same need to keep tabs on my emotions. It was a bit of a shock. It must be horrible to have to constantly smile and put on a brave face when she probably wanted a hug and to just cry in somebody’s hooves every once in a while. I don’t think I could bear it if I had to keep everything bottled up.”

She got a distant look in her eyes. “Becoming a princess has made me start wondering about what the future holds for me. I know Princess Luna and Princess Celestia are ageless, but I don’t know if the same holds true for me. Truth be told, though the question has burned inside for a while, I don’t have the courage to ask.”

“Why not?” Sunset asked, leaning in closer.

“It’s not so much being immortally young that bothers me. Its more the thought that others are not.” Her eyes grew wet, blurring her vision. “I wonder whether I’m going to outlive all my friends and have to stand over their graves, knowing that every friend I ever make will go the same way while I continue to live.

“That’s why I understood why she didn’t confide her emotions in me until I had ascended. The only ponies who can truly understand that gift and curse is another who is just like you. Losing her sister for one thousand years must have been unbearable, knowing she had to be the one to seal her away. It’s no wonder she opened a school for talented unicorns. She had to find something to do to distract herself from the heartache.

“The alternative is equally as disheartening. If I don’t lose any of my friends it will only mean that they will lose me first. The truth of the matter that I’ve had to learn the hard way multiple times is that love hurts. There are times we don’t agree and argue over the right thing; times that feelings are hurt or harsh words are said or mistakes are made.

“Despite all the trouble, though, there’s no denying that it’s worth it. I’ve been given a very special gift and role as an idol for future generations to follow.”

Twilight was gently smiling now, but then she glanced over to Sunset and blushed a little as she giggled. “Sorry about that. I kinda just hijacked that thread of conversation. Please, continue.”

Sunset, who had been feeling uplifted hearing Twilight’s inspiring words, felt the fire in her go out as she now had to return to the darkness of her past. She got that clenching, hot feeling in her stomach again. She let out a quick breath and said, “Fine.

“Celestia came to see me in my room a few hours later. She told me that she could see I wanted some space, so she wasn’t going to expect me at my usual study session and she would wait for me when I was ready to begin again.

“It was a bit of a relief for me now that she backed off. However, I wasn’t going to be dissuaded that easily. With more free time to do what I wanted I spent a good amount of time in the library, trying to find out the last time the portal had been opened. The best I could find was some vague, undated reference.

“Since books and history wouldn’t tell me the answer I wanted I tried a different tack. I went through the extremely boring lists of guard duty. Through talking with the guards who guarded the mirror, and poring over pages and pages of names and dates of who was assigned to guard what, I found to my great surprise that the last time it had been opened was twenty-nine moons ago. Which meant that I could leave in a week.

"I was sick of Celestia and her attitude. I acted like I was following her orders though. I attended lessons with the 'less gifted' gifted unicorns, pretending to pay attention while the whole time thinking about how wonderful it would be to get away from her.”

Twilight gave her a searching look, a question forming in her mind. “Hey, Sunset?”

“Yes?”

“At that time were you already planning your… um… 'grand return?'”

Sunset shook her head. “No. Not back then. I was furious at Celestia for bringing me up to the summit, letting me enjoy the spectacular view, and then expecting me to forget how it felt by taking it away and not giving it back no matter how much effort I put into it. I thought she had stopped loving me…” She clenched her eyes tight as she hugged herself, tears pouring from her eyes.

“But the princess only wanted you to stop being so independent and learn to rely on other ponies to fill in the gaps in your life.”

Sunset slammed a hoof on the table, glaring at Twilight. “Do you think I knew that back then, Twilight? Do you think I would be in this position now if I had got it? You asked about the past and what I was thinking back then, and I’m telling you! Sheesh! Cut me a break!”

Twilight backed up in her seat, putting a little more distance between them. “I’m sorry. You’re right. You can’t help what you were in the past. The only thing you can do is try to forge a new future.”

The anger faded from Sunset as she saw Twilight’s reaction. “I’m sorry too. I didn’t mean to get snooty.” She wiped the tears from her eyes.

“Look, Sunset. If talking about the past is too painful then we can just leave it here.”

Sunset slowly shook her head. “No. I’d rather just get it all out now. If you’re going to talk to Celestia about me then it would be best if you knew all the facts. Besides… we’re friends, aren’t we? Aren’t you suppose to share bad times with friends?” An edge crept into her voice. “Or maybe you only want to hear about the good things, and hearing about my past is too much of a burden on you?”

“No, Sunset!” she said insistently. “I was only saying that for your benefit.”

Sunset looked over at her again, saying angrily, “If the whole message was that I was supposed to learn to rely on others then why do you think it would be to my 'benefit' keeping quiet and holding everything in? If I’m so much of a hassle why don’t I just go back home where I’m wanted?”

Twilight could tell Sunset was on the verge of leaving again, and she felt guilt twisting her insides, distressed at the implication she was giving off. She hopped off her chair, walking over and throwing her hooves over Sunset. She closed her eyes, feeling a few tears come down. “I’m sorry, Sunset, if I gave you the wrong impression. I never meant to upset you so. I’m here to listen. I promise. I’ll listen to your problems as long as you want as your friend. I care about you deeply, and I want to see you excel. I only meant that telling me about your past is just bringing up painful feelings for you.

“It’s not that your problems are too big a burden on ME. I think that maybe they’re a bit too much for YOU, so I don’t want you to think you have to continue if it hurts too much. I only feel bad because I’m the one that brought it up in the first place.”

Sunset’s anger faded away, and she found herself returning the hug, enjoying the contact as warmth went through her; the warmth of friendship. She got a lopsided smile on her as she cried a little.

The contact lasted almost a minute, Twilight waiting until Sunset gently pushed her away. “Are you okay now, Sunset?” she asked.

She still had that funny grin on her face, and nodded gently. “Yeah. Thank you, Twilight. I’m sorry for taking things out on you.”

Twilight smiled warmly at her. “No problem.”

Sunset took a deep breath. “One last journey into the past.”

“Are you sure, Sunset?” Twilight asked with concern.

She nodded again. “At least if you know the whole story I’ll have someone who understands.”

Sunset went back to staring at the table, silence reining for a time. She could feel it at the edge of her consciousness, the raging water of her past regrets. She had so many good times with her friends that she had largely forgotten about them. Here, now, without their support, she was expected to confront it all and hope things went well between her and Celestia. What if things went sour?

She let out the breath she was holding. She wasn’t alone here. She had Twilight. Twilight was a good friend, not forgetting her and still being fond of her even though they had been apart for over two years. That was why she was confiding in Twilight in the first place.

Feeling a little more confident she began to talk again. “I waited for the portal to open, continuing to act like everything was normal, all the while simply wanting the time to arrive. At that time I had no intention of stealing the Element and all that. I only wanted to get away from Celestia, to a place where I knew she couldn’t follow.

“It was stubborn pride that fueled it. I planned to leave simply to show her up. She had told me I couldn’t handle it, and I wanted to go almost solely to prove her wrong. I would go investigate this other world and learn about it, coming back with my findings and revolutionizing history, forever remembered as the one who had the courage to go where no pony had ever gone before. It was the thought of being loved by a large number of ponies that made me want to go through with it. I thought that if I couldn’t get Celestia’s approval, then I’d simply have to be content with quantity instead of quality.”

Twilight bit her tongue to keep from responding, knowing how Sunset had lashed out at her before. She wanted to remark that appreciation isn’t the same as love. At best it was a shallow, fleeting love, but as Sunset had remarked that was her thought process in the past.

“The night came when the portal opened, and it took all my self-control not to just go through right then. As I said I wanted to go to a place Celestia couldn’t follow. I expected her to have the guards try and stop me, and she was also probably watching for it from the shadows. I had to wait until the last possible moment, to make it less likely she’d expect me to be there.

“One night passed, then another. I couldn’t focus on my work, knowing that my escape to freedom was so close. Just another couple of hours, and I would finally be free.

“I very nearly botched things. I had spent the time leading up to the portal opening studying the guard schedules and their general patterns. However, my patience was running thin, making me basically disregard all my careful planning and just brute force my way through the problem.

“Using magic I knocked out most of the guards, tying them up so they’d be useless when they awoke. Naturally one of them was discovered, and the alarm went out. Knowing I had very little time before both the portal’s closing and most likely Celestia coming to investigate the commotion I ran full out toward the room where the portal was kept. I couldn’t afford to be as gentle as before, and I used a blunt object to strike any of the royal guards who got in my way.”

Her breathing went up, her heart beating faster. “Just as I was about to go into the room with the portal I saw her mane coming around the corner. I was terrified. I opened the door, about to run in, when I heard her calling my name.

“Just as I got into the room the end of my tail lit up, caught in her telekinesis, the only part of me she could see. I knew if she caught me then that I was done. I conjured up a blade, cutting most of my tail off. I slammed the door behind me, running those last horrifying steps, knowing she was right behind me. I jumped, turning around in mid-air as I heard the door slam open. The last thing I saw as I started the journey to the human world was her face.

“What was it in that face? I still don’t know. She looked shocked and worried; angry; upset. It was a mixture of emotions.

“When I landed by the statue I knew I didn’t have much time to figure out my new body. Celestia had informed me during my questioning what those changes were, but there’s a big difference being told something and actually experiencing it.

“I put my hoof-er, hand, on the stone, feeling it solid under my palm. I let out a huge sigh of relief. I was safe. Even if she wanted to follow me she couldn’t. I had cut it close, but I had made it through.

“I stood up, looking around, realizing what exactly I had just gotten myself into. I had no magic, no support, and I couldn’t return for another thirty moons. I put my hand on the stone again, this time half-hoping that it would go through, but it stayed solid.”

“But why? You spent so much time studying and were much more well prepared than me for the journey.”

Sunset let out a tiny exasperated laugh, a humorless smile on her face. “Because I wasn’t thinking ahead. I DID spend a lot of time doing research, with the sole goal of getting through the portal without being followed. However, I didn’t account for what I would DO once it happened. I knew next to nothing about how different this world was from my own besides that my body changed to match it.”

Her smile faded as she sighed, her eyes fading out. “I was all alone. All… alone.” She shuddered, tears once more dripping onto the table. “I spent most of my first night sitting by the side of that statue, crying my eyes out. I had lost everything, and I couldn’t do anything about it for another few years.

“I couldn’t muster up the energy to do anything, up until I heard Celestia’s words, telling me that I wasn’t ready and I couldn’t handle it. What made me push so hard was simply my burning desire to prove her wrong.”

She wiped her eyes, slowly shaking her head. “The first few days were the hardest. I realized I couldn’t spend the rest of my life sitting there. I had to do what I set out to do. I did a lot of things I’m not proud of. Without magic I only had my own wits to rely on. I stole food and drinks to keep me fed. I’d scope out houses where I knew no one was home and took blankets and pillows and other essentials. I felt terrible inconveniencing others like that, but I had no other choice. I couldn’t explain that I had no family or relatives because I came from another world and was actually a magical pony.”

Twilight looked disapprovingly at Sunset, not pleased by the revelation, but she wisely kept her mouth shut, once again reminding herself that that was Sunset in the past.

“I found a place to sleep that was pretty out of the way and I didn’t expect anyone to sneak up on me. Once I was more or less settled in I knew I needed a plan. I didn’t want to keep stealing forever, and having nothing to do during the day but survive another one wasn’t going to work out forever. So, traveling to another town, I enrolled in the junior high school there. It would fill up six hours of the day, allow me to blend in, they’d provide some free meals, and it would allow me to learn more about the world I found myself in.”

Twilight’s reproachful look gave way to confusion. “Wait! Why in Equestria would you travel to another town just to go to school? The portal is RIGHT IN FRONT OF A SCHOOL!”

Sunset shook her head. “I had no idea if Celestia had a way to open the portal manually. And even if she couldn’t I didn’t want to risk her discovering me when it next opened. I had no idea if she planned to seek me out. And even if SHE didn’t want to go she could always send a small army of her royal guards to bring me back home. It was safer to just stay far away from that school in front of the portal.

“Oh! And one last reason: It was a high school. At the time I arrived I was only old enough for junior high. Not that there were any official records of me to confirm my age regardless.”

“Okay… so then that brings up the next question: when I came through the portal you were enrolled at that school, so what made you change your mind? And one more question: when did you start your revenge plot?”

“I was in the human world for ten years when I first met you, Twilight. Every thirty moons I would survey the area with binoculars, but no one ever came through. Those three days were always the most terrifying.

“When I wasn’t in school I was usually in the library, studying as much as possible. My anger at Celestia grew distant after the first few months. I had adapted quite nicely to my new life. I felt the freedom I had so desperately sought. Despite the inconvenience of not having magic I found that I was enjoying my new look and my new life.

“After three portals came and went without a sight of Celestia, or anyone, for that matter, I decided to transfer to Canterlot High. Of course I had already graduated from high school once in that other town, so I had to feign ignorance and make up stories to get enrolled in another high school.”

Twilight remembered seeing the pictures of Sunset as the Fall Formal Princess. The first time she had looked genuinely happy, the second time smug, and the third time diabolical.

“You said you were happy with your new life and that you found the other world fascinating enough that your grudge against Celestia was unimportant in comparison.”

Sunset nodded. “Yes, that’s correct. But I’m sure you remember who the principal was?”

“Principal… Celes-tia,” Twilight said slowly, and the connection immediately began to form in her mind. “The human world is largely a parallel of our own world, minus magic, horns, and wings. Even though she wasn’t THE Celestia you were mad at, she was A Celestia that acted in many ways the exact same as her Equestrian counterpart. The same way that the Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and the rest, in that world were basically identical to the ones in Equestria.”

Sunset nodded again. “When I first applied I freaked out upon seeing her, sure that she had been waiting for me all this time. Of course she had no idea what I was talking about, and gave me very odd looks, bewildered by my anger.

“When Vice-Principal Luna came in, asking her sister what all the commotion was, I felt more confused. I knew Luna was sealed away in the moon. I started to understand the counterpart system of the human world, and that this Celestia had no idea who I was. I apologized for my outburst, telling her that she looked a lot like someone I knew that had betrayed me, and we completed my enrollment process.

“Going there every day I’d occasionally see Celestia walking the halls, and every time my stomach would cramp up, each time wondering if the real one was one day going to swap with her. But, more than that, I felt my anger returning.

“I tried not to become overcome by anger, but having to hear students mention Celestia always caused me to tense up, reminding me of how scared I really was of my glorious new life coming to an end. I didn’t like the fear, and so I began to hide it behind a wall of animosity.”

Sunset rested her head on her crossed hooves. “It worked. Too well. I managed to convince myself that I wasn’t scared, and to maintain that illusion I had to prove it to myself.”

Twilight understood the next part. “To prove you weren’t afraid of 'Celestia' you began to take over behind the scenes. Even if it wasn’t YOUR Celestia, you still got a thrill out of undermining her and causing dissent right under her nose.”

Sunset rubbed her head over her hooves a few times, saying, “You got it in one. The deeper I got into the act the more I needed to do to maintain it. With the portal due to open around the time of the final Fall Formal before I was to graduate Canterlot High I wanted to end things off with a bang.

“I waited for it to open, at that point so full of myself I didn’t care if Celestia was waiting on the other end. Luckily no one was guarding it at the time. I wanted to swipe the Element of Magic right under Celestia’s nose and replace it with a fake. I thought it would be my ultimate revenge.

“I felt a giddy excitement from the extreme risk I was taking The thrill of the danger involved just made it all the more fun. At the time I noticed that the portal wasn’t in the castle anymore. I thought that only meant that Celestia had given up on me, which was fine by me.

“I drew the attention of one of the royal guards. I got him somewhere alone and hypnotized him. I wanted to be informed of any major events that had gone on while I had been gone. And that’s when I heard about you, Twilight.”

Twilight knew her name was coming up. “So by questioning the guard you discovered I was Celestia’s new personal student, and that me and my friends were the new Element wielders?”

Sunset sat up. “Yep. It came as a shock to me. A new princess, an alicorn, and an Element wielder in one. I didn’t know you back then, but I at least knew you weren’t as competent or skilled as Celestia. And when I heard that your crown was the actual Element of Magic… well, I had to fight hard not to begin laughing hysterically. I thought fate had to be on my side.

“And, well, you know the rest. You were there for it.”

Twilight sat silently, digesting what she had heard. She got up and began to pace slowly around the room. She stopped when Sunset spoke again.

“I turned into a monster.” Sunset began gently sobbing. “I thought I was in the right, but the Element revealed my true self. I came close to murdering you, completely mad with power.

“Even now, years later, I wonder if I’ve really changed at all.”

Twilight saw Sunset was in need of another hug.

Sunset suddenly slammed her hooves on the table, tears pouring down her eyes as she said heatedly, “WHY? Why you? I was just as talented, just as determined. Why did YOU get everything that should have been mine? WHAT MAKES YOU SO SPECIAL, HUH?”

“Sunset!” Twilight replied, clearly hurt.

Sunset slapped her hooves to her mouth, horrified at the accusation she was lobbying against Twilight. Fear began to pour through her in great waves, and she got up from the table, running out the library, using her magic to open the door.

“Wait, Sunset!” Twilight called after her, giving chase.

Sunset didn’t go far. She ran a few houses away before she leaned up against a tree, slowly sliding down it as she wailed into her hooves, curled up into a ball.

Twilight could hear her crying, and slowly walked over to her. She put a hoof on Sunset’s head, gently rubbing it.

Before Twilight could say anything Sunset lifted her head, saying, “I’m so sorry, Twilight. I didn’t mean to say that. That was so horrible.”

She put her hooves to her head, her voice cracking as she said, “I’m scared!” She let out hiccupping breaths before continuing, “What if I’m turning bad again? I don’t want to ever act like that again. I don’t want to be a monster!” She hugged herself again. “H-h-help me, Twilight,” she begged.

Twilight laid down on the ground, getting on Sunset’s level. In a stern but relaxed voice she said, “Sunset Shimmer, I want you to listen to me very carefully, okay?”

Sunset gave a short jerk of her head.

“Jealousy does NOT make a pony bad. Nor does anger. They are all normal pony feelings. I sometimes feel jealous of Rainbow Dash because of how she runs circles around me in flying, or all the different ways my friends excel in areas that I can’t match. It’s what you DO with those feelings that determine who you really are.

“Just by being here, wanting to make amends, you’re proving you’re NOT the same mare you were when you left. You’re growing up… maturing… because of the ties of friendship that you’ve formed. I believe you’re just a little high strung and anxious because of how difficult what you’re attempting is, so it’s pardonable for you to be a little… loose with your emotions. It doesn’t make you evil. It makes you a normal pony.

“I think you’re extremely brave and courageous for attempting to right this wrong when it would be easier to just leave things as they are. However, I think you know that the greater the difficulty the greater the reward. Your experiences with your friends have been teaching you the same way they taught me.”

She put a hoof on Sunset’s chin, lifting it so they were eye to eye. Giving Sunset a warm smile she said, “I accept your apology and still want to be your friend. Thank you for confiding in me.

“Now, c’mon. Let’s go back to the library and I’ll make you a spot to sleep for the night.” Twilight held out her hoof.

Sunset, despite herself, couldn’t help but smile. Twilight was so understanding and kind. She found herself wishing she could be like Twilight someday.

She wiped her eyes before lifting her hoof, allowing Twilight to pull her to a standing position. When she stood up she pulled hard on Twilight’s hoof, pulling her forward, and this time she initiated the hug. She squeezed tightly her friend, feeling so lucky to have one as special as her. “Thank you, Twilight,” she said with all the kindness she could muster.

Twilight closed her eyes as she hugged back, a few tears coming down as she said with the same tone, “You’re welcome, Sunset.”

Chapter 2: Overwhelming fears

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Twilight woke up to a delicious smell. Sniffing at the air she opened her eyes and sat up, seeing Spike setting out a few plates of pancakes. “Good morning, Spike!” she said with a yawn.

“Aww, you woke up,” Spike responded with a bit of disappointment. “I was planning to surprise you.”

Twilight laughed, hopping out of bed and flying to him, hugging him with a wing. “Well, I appreciate the gesture, Spike.”

They snuggled for a moment before Twilight thought of something. “Wait a second, Spike. How did you make pancakes? We don’t have an oven.”

Spike rolled his eyes. “We don’t need one!” He pointed to himself with a claw, lifting up a pan and blowing on it. “Built in oven capacities, remember?”

Twilight giggled. “Right. Of course. Silly me.” She gently tapped her head with a grin.

She walked over to the window, opening it up and leaning on the windowsill, enjoying the breeze. “Ah, it’s such a nice day today, isn’t it, Spike?”

“You bet! Perfect weather for our charity event.”

She smiled warmly as she looked out at the early birds walking around. Some of them waved to her. “This town has been so good to me. It’s where I became a whole new pony. Literally.” She giggled as she fluttered her wings. “I couldn’t have done it alone, though. That’s the most important lesson I’ve learned here. So I just want to give a little something back. I want to really feel I’ve earned the title of Friendship Princess.

“And Sunset Shimmer being here just makes it all the better. After our last adventure together I always wondered every so often whether she had embraced friendship after I left. I trusted my friends to be up to the task. However, friendship needs two ponies to work. No matter how much love and friendship they offered, if Sunset refused it then it would amount to nothing. I’m so happy.”

“Me too!

“So what did you guys talk about while I was gone?”

“That’s private, Spike. I don’t think I should share that without her consent. But I will say that I learned a lot about her that I didn’t know. When you get a chance I want you to send a message to Principal-ahem-PRINCESS Celestia. Tell her that I’d like her to come over tomorrow at her earliest convenience.”

“I thought you were going to take the train over to Canterlot.”

“Well… that was my initial idea.” She compulsively straightened up the silverware on the napkin so the fork and knife were perfectly straight. “However, I think that, even after spending a day in Ponyville having fun and bonding with the pony versions of our friends, that she’ll be much more comfortable in a less formal setting. She’s already nervous enough about the whole thing. I think she’d freak walking down the long hallway toward Celestia’s throne. It would feel like it was sealing her doom.”

“I get it.” Spike nodded, giving a quick salute. “Yes, ma’am! I’ll send that note right after breakfast.”

“Great! Then I’ll go wake up Sunset.” She walked into another room, hearing Sunset gently snoring. She smiled as she looked up. She didn’t have any other beds, and Sunset flat-out refused to let a princess take the floor just so she would have a bed to sleep in.

Not wanting to have a friend sleep on the floor either she had come up with a simple solution: putting a few nails in the top of two bookshelves she tied a blanket around them, creating a makeshift hammock. Sunset clearly approved. She was out like a light.

“Wakey, wakey!” Twilight said brightly. “Breakfast is ready.”

Sunset mumbled incoherently for a few seconds, before she opened her eyes slightly. “Wha-what?” she said, sounding confused. “Where am I?”

“Sun-set!” Twilight said in a sing-song voice. “Let’s go! Get your lazy flank down here.”

“Twilight?” Sunset murmured, lifting herself up slightly and looking down at her with half-lidded eyes. “Good morning,” she said in a croaky voice, smiling now.

“Sleep well?” Twilight asked.

She nodded, stretching. “I never slept in a hammock before. It’s so relaxing.” She sighed happily as she laid back in it, gently rocking back and forth. “I slept just like a baby last night.”

“Glad to hear it!” Twilight replied, turning around. “Spike made us all some breakfast, so come on down when you’re more awake.”

“Already there!” Sunset replied, giving one powerful swing to get herself upside down, and flipping before she hit the ground. “I could use a good breakfast.”

“Spike makes some good pancakes.”

“I sure hope so.” The two of them walked back to the living room, and Sunset sniffed greedily at the air. “Mmmm. Smells great.”

“Thank you,” Spike replied, giving a small bow.

“You’re welcome, Spike,” Sunset said, giving his head a quick rub.

The three of them all sat down at the table. Pouring syrup on their pancakes the three began digging in.

Between bites Twilight said, “You’re gonna love it today. There’s so much I’ve got planned.”

Sunset swallowed her mouthful of pancake before asking, “I remember yesterday Spike said something about a charity event.”

Twilight nodded. “Yeah. I’ve been setting it up for a while now. It’s set up a short ways outside of town. Me and my friends have been setting up a carnival fair. There’s gonna be all sorts of games and rides. All proceeds will go towards Ponyville Hospital and orphanages around Ponyville. As I said to Spike earlier this town has shaped me and given me so much, so I just want to help give something back.”

“Twilight?” Sunset said quietly.

“Yes?”

“Do you really think it’s going to make a difference?”

Twilight didn’t need to ask. “Yes, I do! I know Princess Celestia very well, so I already know she’s willing to forgive you.” She shook her head a little, adding in, “Anyway, your issues with Celestia don’t matter right now. Focus on today and the fun you’re going to have. You can meet my friends properly and enjoy the carnival. I think Spike is right. A day spent here doing nothing but having a good time will surely improve your outlook on things.”

“But I stole the Element of Magic! Anything could have happened in those three days you were gone.”

Twilight narrowed her eyes, saying sternly, “Enough! No more negative talk, okay? And I don’t want you bringing up this 'I don’t care enough to want to listen' thing you did yesterday. If you’re that anxious about everything that you don’t want to see Celestia today then that’s fine, but I’m not going to let you ruin your own happiness by harping on this issue all day.

“Today is going to be a great day, with carnival rides and clowns and tricks and talents shown off and fireworks being shot into the air. Leave tomorrow’s worries for tomorrow. You’re just going to make yourself sick if you keep thinking about it.

“Don’t forget. I’m here for you, and I’m not giving up on you. Princess Celestia may be older than me, but I am also an alicorn princess, and my words hold just as much weight as hers. Now finish your pancakes and let’s just have a good day, okay?”

Sunset released a heavy breath, her emotions settling down as a tear came down her eye. “Thank you, Twilight. I’m sorry. It’s just… I haven’t seen Celestia in over ten years. It might be too much.”

“Sunset,” Twilight said gently, “are you really still that afraid? If you really did tell me everything last night and you’ve genuinely changed there’s no reason Celestia won’t want to see you.”

Sunset slowly chewed her pancake, swallowing. “I guess I’m just scared that she won’t accept my apology. I know that YOU believe me and have forgiven me, Twilight, but it doesn’t mean she will. She might think this is all another trick.”

She put a hoof to her face, her face clenching. “No! It’s not that! That’s not what scares me the most. I’m scared that she’ll banish me to a place away from my friends. They’ve made me feel so special and valued and given my life real meaning.” She began shaking, putting a hoof over her quivering stomach. “W-w-when I think about being separated from them forever… when I think about that…” Her eyes welled up with tears before she began bawling, completely losing control.

Twilight and Spike both got up at nearly the same moment, converging on her. Standing on either side of her they each gave her a hug.

“Sunset, calm down!” Twilight said, concerned. She squeezed tight. “Celestia would never want to break those strong bonds between you and your friends.”

“Yeah!” Spike added. “The two of us know Celestia would never do that to you. If your friends mean that much to you then she’ll know how deeply you’ve changed.”

Twilight began gently rubbing her head. “When I defeated Nightmare Moon with the Elements of Harmony I was scared and upset that I was about to lose the friends I had just learned to love when she had me return to Canterlot. However, she allowed me to stay in Ponyville because she knew it was exactly what I needed to become a well-rounded individual. Just look at me now. I’m a princess representing friendship.

“It’ll be okay, Sunset.” Twilight squeezed tighter, slowly nuzzling her. “I promise. Just settle down.”

It took a few minutes, but Sunset slowly calmed down, their words and their loving holds relaxing her raging emotions. When she was reduced to sniffs and shuddering breaths she finally said, “B-b-but, Twilight, you didn’t betray her and try to overthrow the kingdom. You didn’t steal a priceless powerful artifact.”

“We agreed yesterday that Celestia told you to observe other ponies to learn more about friendship and unity instead of doing it all yourself. You’ve learned the lesson now that she wanted you to learn all those years ago, and that’s all she really wanted from you.

“Before Princess Celestia sent me through the portal she told me about you. Do you know what she said to me?”

Sunset shook her head, wiping her eyes.

“She didn’t say anything like, 'I wish Sunset would return so I can imprison her forever.' She told me that she always hoped that you would return, seeking her guidance. There was no hatred in that statement. She would love to be reconciled with you.”

Sunset looked at Twilight unsurely, gently pushing her away. “She… she really said that?”

Twilight nodded.

Sunset looked down, saying quietly, “But why? Why did she say that?”

Twilight shook her head. “Isn’t is obvious yet? It’s because she cares about you, Sunset. Even now, after all this time.”

“Hey!” said Spike, and both Twilight and Sunset looked over at him. “I just thought of something. Ten years? That’s nothing. Discord was sealed away for a THOUSAND, and even then Princess Celestia wanted him released and reformed so he could make up for his past mistakes. He’s not perfect, but he’s been free and friends with us for a few years now, with no indication he’s going back to his old chaotic ways.”

“Hmmm.” Twilight let out a little laugh. “Good point, Spike. If Discord, the self-proclaimed spirit of chaos, who tried to rule Equestria with an iron hoof and make it the 'chaos capital of the world' can be forgiven and learn the magic of friendship then Celestia will forgive you too. All she’s looking for is genuine remorse and desire to do better, both of which you’ve demonstrated in spades.”

“But-but,” Sunset started, but she couldn’t think of anything to counter their argument, so she just grew silent, stuffing another piece of pancake in her mouth.

Twilight could see they had finally hit paydirt. Sunset was being quiet, just stuffing food into her mouth every time it was empty, but her demeanor had changed. She no longer looked on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

When her plate was empty Sunset gently pushed her plate away. In a distant voice she said, “Thank you, Spike, for breakfast. It was delicious.” She got onto the floor and began walking toward the door. “I’m going for a quick walk.”

“Let me come with you,” Twilight said immediately, feeling suspicious.

Sunset shook her head. “I… I’d like to go alone. I need some time to think.”

Twilight looked contemplatively at Sunset. “Come here for a second.”

Sunset paused, turning around. “Can’t it wait?”

“No!” Twilight said firmly.

After a few seconds she walked until she was in front of Twilight. “Yes?”

Looking Sunset in the eye Twilight said, “I trust you, Sunset. I mean that. I’m not offering to walk with you because I don’t think it’s safe for other ponies to be around you or anything.”

Sunset shrugged. “I know.”

“Sunset, I can’t arrange a reconciliation between the two of you if you’re not around. I can’t promise I’m going to set up a meeting with Celestia if you can’t promise me you’re not going to run away.”

Sunset met Twilight’s gaze. “I’m not going to run away.”

“Okay, then,” Twilight responded, pointing her hoof to the door. “I’ll hold you to that. Off you go, then.”

Sunset closed the distance between them, giving Twilight a quick hug before heading out the door.

Spike waited until the door closed before he asked, “Are we going to follow her?”

Twilight shook her head. “I want to, but my heart says that she’s being honest with me and its best to leave her alone right now.”

She gave Spike a big hug. “That was awesome, Spike! I think that what you brought up was a masterstroke. Sunset should be fine now.”

Spike blushed. “Aw, shucks, Twilight. I was just doing what I thought you’d do. I’m one of your subjects too, y’know. “

Sunset slowly walked through town, looking at the ground, her mind in a whirl. She remembered Discord from one of the books she had read on Celestia’s history. She read about the kind of life ponies had back then. He sought only his own pleasure and fun, and was so powerful that only the Elements of Harmony could stop him.

‘If a guy like him could be reformed and forgiven,’ she thought, ‘then I should be able to be forgiven too, right?’

No matter what angle she tried to attack it from she just couldn’t break the logic that Spike had brought up. Discord had done far worse things than she had and had actually succeeded in conquering Equestria. If he was really turned good and his crimes pardoned because he learned about the joy of friendship there was no reason why she, who had done a lot less than him, shouldn’t be extended the same courtesy, was there?

“No!” she said to herself, feeling more confident as she looked up at the town. “I’m not alone.” She thought of Spike and Twilight both hugging her. “Everything will be okay, so long as I have my friends behind me.”

The overwhelming fear that had been threatening to knock her down was fading. A sense of excitement was tingling in her stomach. She turned around, trotting back towards the library.

“Hello!” Sunset said joyfully to a pony she passed.

By the time she arrived she was feeling so full of exhilaration she could hardly sit still. Opening the door she could see Spike and Twilight still sitting at the table. “I’m back!”

Twilight gave her a warm smile, enjoying Sunset’s new attitude. “Well, that walk certainly did you some good.”

“Yep! I’m ready to attack the day. I can’t wait to see this carnival you set up. Let’s go meet your friends! I could always use some more on this side. And tomorrow… well-” her smile faded slightly “-well, like you said we’ll leave that for tomorrow.”

Twilight gave Spike a few pats on the back. “Look what you did, Spike. It might have taken me a lot longer to convince her if you hadn’t spoken up.”

Spike felt warmth blossoming in his stomach, blushing again. “Well, I learned from the best. That’s all.”

She nuzzled his face. “You’re so sweet.”

Sunset waved her hoof in the air. “Hellooooo? Let’s go, slowpokes. Stop the idle conversation.”

“Yes, yes. Coming,” said Twilight, levitating the dishes to the sink. Ordinarily she would be bothered at having a messy sink but seeing Sunset so eager for adventure and friendship overcame that peeve of hers.

As Spike and Twilight got up and headed for the stairs Sunset met them halfway and hugged the two of them. “Thanks, you guys. I really needed that pep talk. It helped a lot.”

“You’re welcome,” they both responded as they hugged her back.

Chapter 3: Tough hurdles.

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Twilight, Sunset, and Spike were all walking side-by-side. Sunset was gently humming to herself, a bounce in her step.

Twilight was glad that Sunset was finally perking up. It was obvious that her past misdeeds were deeply bothering her and she was having trouble believing that she should or would be forgiven. She knew that Princess Celestia would be glad to bury the hatchet and embrace her former student as a friend, not banish her to the deepest dungeon in solitary confinement.

“Sunset,” said Twilight. “I told my friends to all be there in the morning to finish setting up things. I think that’ll make it better for you. I don’t have to do a million introductions.”

“Sounds great!”

“This carnival is going to be up for about a week. I know you can’t stay that long, but I figure once you work things out with the princess you can help out here.”

“Hmmm. You know, I haven’t decided that yet.” Her pace slowed down a bit. “I didn’t tell you this yesterday, but when I was going to come back I tried to hide it from my friends because I wasn’t sure they’d let me go. More than that, I wasn’t sure whether I’d want to go back. I thought that maybe if I work things out with Celestia that maybe she’d want to take me on as her student again.”

Twilight’s eyes lit up. “REALLY? That sounds amazing! I can help teach you too.”

Sunset sighed. “The fact of the matter is… the portal is only open for three days. That’s it. Then there’s a long period where it can’t be opened again. I can’t just go back and forth between them whenever I want, and switching between two different worlds every few years is impractical. It would be hard to explain my absences.

“In the end I have to make a difficult choice. I have friends on both sides, so I’m not that afraid of not being liked. It’s more that I’m afraid of hurting the ones I don’t choose. That was the big reason I didn’t want to tell then I was leaving. They figured out what I was up to, though, and stopped me. They were kinda mad and upset, and they had every right to be. I was scared if I brought up the possibility of wanting to stay in my original world that they’d abandon me. However, they didn’t do that. They told me that a piece of them will always be with me, so we’re never truly apart, and that they’d accept it, whichever way I chose.”

“The best of friends know when to let go. Sometimes, even though it can be extremely difficult to be apart, a friend has a higher calling that they make a priority.”

Spike let out a sigh. “Just like when I had to give Peewee away.”

“Peewee?” asked Sunset.

“He was my pet phoenix.”

“Wow!” Sunset exclaimed, impressed. “Phoenix’s are extremely rare pets. I didn’t think anyone other than Celestia could earn their trust.”

“Well, I got him as a baby, before he’d learned not to trust others.”

“So what happened to him?”

“Well… he wasn’t mine to keep.”

Twilight spoke up. “A few years ago Spike was having a bit of an identity crisis. He was a dragon who had grown up among ponies. The differences between our races made him curious about his family and what it truly means to be a dragon, so he joined the dragon migration. Me, Rarity, and Rainbow Dash all followed in secret, just in case.”

“And I’m glad you did,” Spike said, smiling over at her. Turning to Sunset he continued, “The older dragons mostly just slept and watched over the younger ones. I hung out with the teenage dragons. After a few flops I managed to earn their respect, and they asked me to be the lookout for their escapades. They hobby was going up to phoenix nests and smashing their eggs.”

Sunset gasped, putting a hoof to her mouth. “That’s horrible! No wonder they have trust issues with other species.”

“In all the commotion I found an egg, and they ordered me to smash it. I refused. It made me think of my own beginnings. I was brought to Canterlot as a defenseless egg. I was hatched by Twilight and became her companion and assistant as she grew up. Someone could have smashed ME before that happened, and then I wouldn’t have gotten to experience all the joy of having friends and helping Twilight become her best self.”

“Don’t know what I’d do without you,” Twilight said, nuzzling his face.

Spike rubbed her back. “You know, off topic here, for another of our adventures was facing off against King Sombra, the unicorn king. He had a spell that made you see your worst fears, and mine was that Twilight would one day send me away because she didn’t need me anymore.” He wiped a tear from his eye. “It was one of the worst things ever, but I know Twilight would never abandon her friends.”

“That’s right, Spike. You’ve always been with me through thick and thin, and you’re always there for me when I need you.”

Sunset rolled her eyes, saying jokingly, “Okay there, sappy. So what happened with the phoenix?”

“Well, they weren’t happy with my refusal. They threatened to hurt me too. That’s when Twilight and the rest revealed themselves. Twilight teleported us all out of there and we returned home. Peewee hatched shortly after that.

“Thinking about my own origins I realized that compared to how I saw dragons act that I was just fine with acting like a pony, and I wanted to help teach Peewee about that too. However, after a few weeks… I started feeling really guilty.” Spike felt himself tearing up. “I had no idea who my parents were. Princess Celestia said she found my egg abandoned by a dragon nest. Whether that meant my parents meant to come back for me but weren’t able to or maybe they just didn’t want me… I had never got to know my parents. However, Peewee’s parents were still alive, and he deserved to know them. So, with a heavy heart, me and Twilight made the trip back to the nest to return their baby back to them.

“When they saw me they initially went on the attack, as they have good memories and didn’t forget I was part of the group that had caused them to lose the egg in the first place. Good old Peewee got them to stop. I apologized to them and told them I was only there to return their child to them. I don’t know if they really forgave me for what I did, but I could see that their joy at having their baby back was more important than their anger at me.”

Spike sighed. “I keep hoping that one day I’ll see him return to Ponyville, if only just to say hi. However, he’s never come. I hope he’s doing alright.”

Sunset gave him a quick nuzzle with her hoof. “Buck up, Spike. You did the right thing. His parents would have grieved their child for a long time if you hadn’t had the good sense to take him back where he belongs.”

Spike sighed again. “Yeah, I know it was the right thing to do. That doesn’t make it any easier. I wanted to help teach another about the magic of friendship too, y’know?”

“And what better way to do that than to sacrifice what you really want instead of holding onto him out of a selfish desire? I think you did teach him something important he’ll never forget, and you should be proud of yourself for it.”

Spike got an awkward smile on his face. “You… you really think so?”

“I know so.”

“I think Sunset’s right, Spike,” said Twilight. “Unlike you Peewee had a real family to go back to, and it would have been wrong to keep him simply because you wanted a pet. Letting him go took a lot of courage, and I think it was a wonderful demonstration of friendship. Peewee’s mother and father might have talked with him about living with you, and it would let them know that there are some dragons they can trust, and that not all species mean them harm. Such acts tend to expand far beyond their initial recipient. It could someday lead to phoenix’s becoming less reclusive in the future.”

Spike shrugged. “Well, I don’t think just that is going to lead the phoenix race to change.”

Twilight giggled. “Oh, Spike. After all we’ve done together are you still underestimating the power a simple good deed can do for others?”

“Hmm, I guess I am. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Addressing Sunset, Twilight said, “Your friends let you go because they understand your need to resolve the past. And they’re prepared for the possibility you might want to stay when you do. You were never a proper human to start with, and it’s understandable that you might decide to use what you learned from your time over there to help you over here. The portal doesn’t close indefinitely, you know? Even if you decide to stay here in Equestria you might decide you prefer your life over there. If that’s the case you can go back the next time around. A bit of a long time to wait, for sure, but we haven’t worked out the mechanics of the portal enough to alter its duration.

“Just like our friends in the human world I’ll accept your decision, whatever it may be.”

“Thank you, Twilight. And you, Spike. That story helped to put things in perspective.”

“So that makes two-nothing, Spike!” Spike said, laughing as he pumped his claw.

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Hey, don’t forget who taught you enough to help others, Spike.”

“Yep! Pinkie Pie. Friends with every pony in town-“ he began ticking off with his claws “-always doing her best to make everyone smile, knows every detail about every pony in Ponyville…”

Twilight saw his smug look, but she wasn’t going to rise to his bait. “Oh, Sunset!” she said brightly. “I have this lovely fire ruby I’ve been saving, and I think you’d be the best one to have it.”

Spike’s face instantly dropped. “Another one? You had another one? Oh, come on, Twilight! You can’t give it to her! Do you know how awesome and rare fire rubies are?”

Twilight patted his head. “I was kidding. I only had the one.”

Spike’s mouth dropped almost to the ground. “I don’t know whether to cry because there is no second fire ruby or because you were going to give it to Sunset.”

“Don’t cry, Spike. Here. Take this as an apology.” Her horn glowed and there was a flash before a big emerald appeared.

He looked up at it. “Mmm. It’s not as good as a fire ruby… but I’ll take it.” He jumped in the air, spinning as he grabbed it and landed back on his feet. He quickly scarfed down the jewel.

“Hmm? There it is!” Twilight said excitedly as they came to the top of a hill.

“Wooooow,” said Sunset. It was a lot bigger than she expected. She didn’t know where to look first. It looked like an actual amusement park. She could see a mechanical swing set, a roller-coaster, a log ride, and a few concession stands, among other things.

They were still a ways off, but just the preview was enough to get her excitement up. She took off, saying, “Come on! Let’s go, slowpokes.”

“Wait up, Sunset!” Twilight called after her, laughing as she ran.

“Why wait?” Spike said, hopping on top of her. “This is going to be so much fun!”

Twilight grunted slightly. “Ugh, you’re not as light as you used to be.”

“I know, but one day you’ll be the one riding on me. Until then, you be my steed.”

Twilight almost bucked him off, but then thought better of it.

When they reached the front entrance to the gate they all came to a stop. “I just realized,” said Sunset with a frown, looking up at a water ride. “I don’t have any money.”

Twilight put a hoof on Sunset. “Don’t worry about that. I’ll cover you. You can just owe me one.”

“I owe you more than one,” Sunset replied. “You saved my life and showed me the path to a better life.” She turned towards Twilight. “I don’t think I can ever repay that debt.”

Twilight returned her grin. “You already have, simply by embracing the light I shone upon you.”

“Twilight!” came a familiar voice. “Over here!”

The three of them turned and saw Rainbow Dash standing there. “Come on!” she called out, gesturing with her hoof. “We’re all waiting for you so we can get this bad boy started.”

Twilight, Spike, and Sunset followed Rainbow Dash a short distance away where Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, and Fluttershy were waiting.

“Ah, good, you’re here,” said Rarity. “I was wondering when you would-” She stopped suddenly, giving a quizzical look behind Twilight. The pony standing there looked vaguely familiar to her, but that wasn’t what was weirding her out. It was the fact that she was giving her such an intimate smile, like they had been friends for years. “Um, hello?” said Rarity in an excessively polite tone, an over-wide smile on her face, waving her hoof a little.

Rarity wasn’t the only one feeling odd. Each of them were sure they had never met this pony before, but there was something about her that just felt like they knew her somehow. Her eyes were so tender and joyous.

Sunset could see their strange expressions, but she just couldn’t help it. Even if they weren’t her same friends from the human world, just seeing their Equestrian counterparts filled her with happiness. Her heart felt so light it might just fly out into the atmosphere. Her meeting with Celestia the next day already felt more minor, knowing that she’d have all of them by her side when she went to meet her past.

“Hey, everyone,” said Twilight. “Are the girls here too?”

Applejack wrenched her eyes away from the new pony, saying distractedly, “Oh, yeah. They should be around here somewhere.”

“Well, I’d like to introduce a new friend, and I think it would make things easier if we took care of it all at once. She’s a little shy.”

Rainbow scoffed, seeing the stranger’s calm attitude. “Oh, yeah. Fluttershy number two, over here.”

“Yeah, Twilight!” said Pinkie Pie excitedly, hopping on her hooves like she was doing the Sunshine, Sunshine dance. “She doesn’t look shy.” She did a hoofstand. “She’d just love to be friends with the Pink-”she rolled forward, winding up right in front of Sunset “-ie Pie!”

Sunset giggled. “Oh, Pinkie. You never change.”

“Not really. Hmm? But how did you know that?” Her eyebrow went up as she scratched her chin, before her face lit up. “I got it!” She leaned backwards towards her friends and said in a loud whisper, “She’s psychic!”

Twilight let out a light sigh, remembering the Pinkie Pie from the other world saying the same thing about HER when she knew Pinkie’s name before she introduced herself. “Here or there, you’re right. Pinkie is always the same.”

“Well, I’d never say no ta a new friend,” said Applejack. “Hold on a second.” Putting a hoof to the side of her mouth she yelled out, “APPLE BLOOM! Come over here!”

It took a few seconds before the response came. “COMIN’!”

Apple Bloom came running over, closely followed by Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo. The three of them had grown with the years, but were still a head shorter than their sisters, and about the same size as Spike. Each of them had their cutie marks: Apple Bloom's was an apple tree, Scootaloo’s a scooter, and Sweetie Belle’s several musical notes.

“What’s up, Sis?”

“Twilight’s got a new friend for us to meet.”

“There you are,” said Sunset, giving them the same warm smiles as the others ones. “Now the gang’s all here.”

Apple Bloom had no sense of déjà vu, so she found it even stranger that a pony she had never seen before was giving her such a loving look.

“Um, Twilight?” said Fluttershy. “You said you wanted to introduce us to a new friend, but it seems like she knows all of us already.”

“Well, in a sense that’s true,” Twilight responded. “She’s already good friends with all of you… just not in this world.”

“Pardon?” said Rarity.

“Come again?” said Applejack.

Twilight put a hoof on Sunset, saying, “Everyone, this is Sunset Shimmer. Of course you’ve never met her properly, but she-”

“Wait a second!” interrupted Rainbow Dash, her confusion turning to anger. “Wasn’t she the no-good thief who swiped your Element of Harmony, abandoned Celestia, and tried to kill you and return here a conqueror? What’s SHE doing here?”

Sunset’s happy demeanor faded instantly, her face scrunching up and her body tensing. All of them were giving her the look, that same ugly, hateful look everyone had given her after the Fall Formal. Applejack and Rarity both pushed their sisters behind them as if she was suddenly going to abduct them.

Scootaloo began to feel off. Sunset’s expression, her demeanor, looked so familiar.

“HEY!” said Spike sharply. “She’s here because Twilight wants her here, Rainbow Dash! She’s your princess, is she not? Do you trust her or not?”

“Spike…” Sunset looked over at him, feeling touched.

“OOOOOHHHHHHH!” Pinkie said, her bright demeanor returning. “I remember now! She came through the portal and took the Element and took it to the human world and you and Spike followed her and tried to get it back and then she managed to get the Element and she became a horrible demon-”

Sunset flinched again, before Pinkie rushed behind her and she gasped as Pinkie pulled her onto her hind legs and lifted her front hooves, moving them around like a ghost.

“-RAAAH-I hate friendship! SHOOM!”

She rushed back with the rest, grabbing them all into a tight group. “No! Friendship rules! FROOOM!”

She zoomed back to Sunset, grabbing onto her again. “NOOO! I’ve been defeated.” She fell back with Sunset, before going back to her friends. “Friendship?”

She pulled Sunset up, working her mouth. “Friendship, yes!” Taking Sunset’s hooves she began waving them back and forth. “Yay, friendship! WOOHOOO!

“And then we all became friends in another world!” Grabbing a drink she took a long sip from a straw, slurping away before holding it out and saying, “True story!”

Pinkie gave a big, open-mouthed grin as she finished. All of them gave her strange looks like she was from another planet.

Sunset began to laugh. She couldn’t help it. The sheer ridiculousness of Pinkie Pie never ceased to amaze her. Pinkie sat down next to her, putting a hoof around her as she began to laugh too. Sunset returned the gesture.

The tension broke, and all of them began to join in until tears were coming down their eyes.

“P-P-Personal space, Pinkie,” said Applejack, wiping her eyes. “Learn it.”

When the laughter finally died down Sunset stood up, facing them. “Listen, everyone. I know I’ve done some horrible things in the past. I don’t deny any of it. That’s the reason I’m here today. I came back through the portal so I can meet Celestia and make peace with her.” She sighed, averting her eyes. “I’m just kinda nervous. It’s been so long since I’ve seen her, so I just wanted the support of some friends with me before I have to face her.”

“Hey, girls,” said Sweetie Belle. “Doesn’t she look familiar?”

“Ya getting’ that feelin’ too, Sweetie Belle?” said Apple Bloom.

“So I’m not the only one?” said Scootaloo.

A strong breeze came through the area. As it flowed behind Sunset, blowing her tail towards her body Apple Bloom’s eyes lit up. “OH! That’s it.”

“You got it?”

“Babs!”

“Yer cousin?” said Applejack.

“Yeah! That’s that expression she always wore when she’d be worried about not havin’ a cutie mark. She’d always cover her blank flank with her tail.”

Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo both gave Sunset a hard look. “Yeah, you’re right!” said Scootaloo. “I see it now.”

“Me too!” said Sweetie Belle.

Apple Bloom turned to her sister. “Come on, Applejack. She says she’s sorry for what she did. Babs did a lot of crummy things to us, but we forgave her when she realized how nasty she was bein’ and apologized.”

“Well, shoot,” said Applejack. “After sharing such a good laugh together I guess I don’t got much choice, do I?”

“Great! Let’s all be friends!”

There was a murmur of agreement among the rest of the ponies.

Rainbow Dash looked mollified, but she added in, “I’ll give you a shot because Twilight vouched for you, but I’ve got my eye on you. If you do ANYTHING to endanger my friends you’ll be sorry.”

“Rainbow Dash!” Twilight said anxiously, giving a quick glance at Sunset. Knowing how nervous Sunset was she didn’t want her to get all upset again.

Sunset nodded grimly, barely fazed. “I understand. It’s okay, Twilight. It’s nothing less than I would expect from the Element of Loyalty.”

“Well… okay, then,” Twilight replied cautiously.

“Come on, everyone. We still have to do one last walk around the park to make sure everything is ready. There’s only another hour before opening. We can chat on the way.”

As all of them began walking Sunset hung back slightly, going slower than the rest. She looked at all of them, tears blurring her vision. She thought she had finally escaped the LOOK, that LOOK of distrust and anger, like she was the scum of the world.

‘All of them,’ she thought, the tears starting to come down, ‘Twilight, Spike, Applejack… every one of them gave me that same expression when they saw me. And if all of them are acting that way then how is Celestia going to react?’

Her head went down as she continued her slow plod, staring at the grass. ‘Huh?’ she thought, seeing the grass she was walking on suddenly turning red before realizing it wasn’t grass at all. It was a carpet.

“What are YOU doing here?” came a sharp voice from ahead.

Sunset gasped, her eyes going wide. Her head shot up, and she saw Celestia standing there, sitting on her throne. Celestia was giving her a deadly glare that made her blood turn cold.

“Traitors cannot be abided!” She began walking toward her, and Sunset began to back up, shivering. “You ran away, tried to murder my precious student, stole a priceless Equestrian artifact, and endangered everyone for your own selfish ambitions. You are unforgivable scum!”

“N-n-no!” Sunset replied in a rush. “I’m n-n-not that same pony anymore!”

“ENOUGH!” Celestia replied in the Royal Canterlot Voice. Her horn began to glow so bright it became white, a sphere of magic around her as her eyes glowed pure-white as well. “With my sister back there’s now room for one on the moon. You will never endanger my subjects again.”

“NO! NO! NO!” Sunset pleaded, too scared to move. “Please! My friends!”

“Sunset!” said Celestia, but out of her mouth came Twilight’s voice. “Sunset! Hey!”

She felt herself being shaken, and Celestia’s throne room melted away until she saw Twilight and the rest all standing in front of her, worry and concern on their faces. She looked around, her heart racing and her eyes so small they were almost invisible. Her breathing was short and shallow. ‘It wasn’t real,’ she thought, in a near-panic. ‘It wasn’t real. It wasn’t… real.’

Sunset took a few shuddering breaths before she fell onto Twilight, squeezing her tightly, and said in a scared voice,. “H-h-help me! I-I-I don’t wanna be banished! I do-do-don’t want to-to-to lose my friends!”

“Sunset!” Twilight said soothingly, rubbing her back. “Just relax. What happened?”

“I… I had a vision. I was standing in front of Celestia…” She wiped her face as she shuddered, the memory making her innards feel like ice again. “…she said she was going to send me to the moon for what I did. She looked so angry.

“Why should I expect anything different?” She let go of Twilight, walking away a few steps. “After all, none of you really trust me. Every single one of you gave me the same glare when you found out who I was. Even you, Twilight. None of you think that I really changed.

“I’ve tried!” she said, her voice cracking as she spun around, swinging her hoof. “I’ve worked so HARD to change myself from who I was. I’ve done everything I could to embrace friendship and distance myself as much as possible from that horrible being I used to be.” Tears poured down her eyes. “I had to endure so much! I’ve had to deal with the cold hateful eyes of those I stepped on on my path to power. I had to deal with the ridicule and the put-downs and the insults and those that wanted revenge. I endured it all, knowing it was no less than I deserved.”

She turned around again, sinking to the ground. “So many times I felt like giving up. It would have been so easy to let it get to me, to return to what I used to be and lose myself in revenge to escape it all, but five things stopped me every time from wanting to go down that path: Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Fluttershy, and Pinkie Pie. When life got me down and felt unbearable they all shared my pain, offering me kindness and support until the weight stopped being so crushing.

“And now, a few years later, after doing my best to make up for my horrible past, people’s opinions about me have slowly shifted. They can see I’ve become a better person, and have stopped treating me so coldly. It was enough for them, but not for everyone. It wasn’t enough for me. I may have repaid my debt in that world, but I still have one to repay in this one. That’s why I returned.

“But I guess none of it matters. My name is still mud here.” Her head slumped onto her front hooves. “All I wanted was to make peace with Celestia, but I guess that’s just going to end as a dream.” She forced herself up to her hooves, slowly plodding away as she continued emotionlessly, “In this world I don’t have any power to do anything, because I have no friends here. All I was looking for was a little support, to give me the strength I needed to do the right thing, but if all of you hate me why should I expect Celestia to feel any different?”

For a few seconds none of them could respond. Turned away from them Sunset couldn’t even see that most of them were crying, touched by her plight.

Rainbow Dash felt the last of her reservations fade away. She could now see the new Sunset for herself. Flapping her wings she zoomed forward, landing in front of Sunset. “And just where do you think you’re going?”

Sunset looked up, an inscrutable expression on her face, but didn’t respond.

“Twilight called you her friend, and just like in the other world she brought you to us because she knew we could help. We just got off on the wrong hoof. I can see you were speaking from your heart just now. That much is clear to me.”

Applejack jogged up until she was next to Rainbow. “I’m powerful sorry for treatin’ ya like that. We all know what Twilight said after she returned from the portal, but the only time we actually saw ya was when ya came to swipe the crown, and first impressions can play a big part. We shoulda known you were someone to be trusted from the way ya was lookin’ at all of us when ya saw us.

“Can ya ever forgive us… friend?” Applejack gave her a comforting smile before putting her hoof out.

“Don’t bother asking,” said Rainbow, a mischievous grin on her face. “She’s going to, whether she wants to or not. HUG DOGPILE!”

Giggles abounded as they all swarmed her, hugging Sunset like their life depended on it.

Sunset at first showed no reaction, still with a dead look on her face. She looked around at the group, each of them circled around her, and her iron mask began to crack. She was reminded of her friends from the human world, who would do the same thing for her when she was down. Her apathy slowly faded as she felt the outpouring of love surrounding her, a tear coming down her cheek

She closed her eyes, a serene smile upon her face. Maybe it wasn’t hopeless. Maybe she did have some friends in Equestria after all. Maybe… she would give it one more try.

Chapter 4: The carnival

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Sunset could feel the light of friendship in her heart, the same light that always helped to fight off the darkness and helped her be her best. No. Now wasn’t the time to quit. It was going to be hard, It was going to be difficult, but she would never truly be able to move on from her past until she resolved her biggest mistake.

She envisioned being in Celestia’s throne room again, and this time Celestia was wearing a tender smile, the same one she used to give her. “Welcome home, Sunset,” she said lovingly, a happy tear coming down her eye.

All Celestia really wanted was to know that she had changed. Celestia wouldn’t blast her off the face of the planet. That was a silly idea.

When the others let her go Sunset said serenely, “Thank you, everyone. I’m feeling much better now.”

“GREAT!” said Pinkie, hopping in the air. “So let’s finish the inspection and then go on some rides.” She took off with the usual bounce in her step.

“It shouldn’t take long,” said Applejack.

The rest of them began to walk away, engaging each other in conversation, and once more Sunset hung behind. It wasn’t a crushing fear that stopped her this time. She had a thoughtful frown on her face as she looked at her retreating friends.

“Something wrong, Sunset?” asked Twilight.

Sunset jumped, letting out a cry of surprise as she turned her head to see Twilight standing right next to her, Spike still on her back. She put a hoof to her chest, panting. “D-Don’t scare me like that!”

“I hung back too, to see what you would do. Are you still feeling doubtful?”

Sunset stared at Twilight, the thoughtful look back on her face. ‘Is there something I can do?’ she thought. ‘Something to ensure the outcome? I trust that Twilight has a lot of influence with the princess, and that she’ll listen, and that my friends will stand by my side… but if I could just do something to tip the scales in my favor… really PROVE that I’m a changed mare.’

Looking into Twilight’s eyes she said determinedly, “Twilight… you saved my life when you showed me a new way to live and freed me from my evil ambitions. If some freak or monster comes out of the woodwork I’ll fight by your side to protect Equestria. And…” She took a deep breath. “And if it comes down to it I would die to defend you.”

“Sunset!” Twilight said, shock clear in her voice, unsure of how to respond. “Why are you being so morbid?”

“Twilight!” she said sharply, her eyes blazing with passion. “Do you understand why I’m saying that?”

Twilight looked thoughtfully at the ground for a second before meeting Sunset’s eyes again. “Yes… I do.” There was weight in her words and eyes too as she said, “And if it came down to it I would be the one to die for you. As princess, I should be the one to put myself in danger for my subjects. You may be older than me, Sunset, and there is still much I need to learn, but I value you and everything you stand for, so I wouldn’t let you die.”

Sunset put a hoof out to Twilight, a confident smile on her face. “Then it’s settled. The two of us will protect each other, no matter what.”

Twilight met her hoof. “You know it!” she said with a giggle.

“Hey!” said Applejack. “Do I haveta grab a lasso ta get ya ta move, Sunset?”

Sunset looked ahead of her, seeing the rest of them all waiting for her.

Pinkie was looking distressed. “You’re not still upset at us, are you?” She put her hooves on the side of her head. “Oh, it must be because I didn’t throw you a welcoming party and you’re feeling left out. We don’t have time right now but after we leave the carnival I can throw you an 'I used to be a student of a princess until I got into a big fight with her and ran away into another world but now I’m back and ready to apologize' party.”

Sunset began to crack up again as the rest of them rolled their eyes. “Pinkie truly has a party for every occasion.”

She walked forward, Twilight and Spike matching pace with her, until she was in front of them again. “I’m fine, you guys. Seriously. I was just thinking a little. However…” She looked warmly over at Pinkie. “I certainly wouldn’t say no to a Pinkie Pie party later on.”’

Pinkie cheered up right away, her eyes lighting up. “WOOHOO!” she yelled out, hopping into the air.

After walking around for a bit they met a crowd of ponies all wearing white coats. “Hello, Princess Twilight,” said a stallion, bowing his head.

Twilight returned the gesture. “Hello, Placid Ocean. Are the preparations complete?”

“Yes, princess. We are ready to open whenever you’re ready.”

“Very good. Thank you, everyone.”

Placid turned to the others. “You heard her. Everybody to their positions.” The group broke up, all heading in different directions.

“Who was that?” asked Sunset.

“They’re the ride operators,” Twilight responded. “Without them this wouldn’t be possible. I may be strong with magic, but I can’t do everything myself. They helped to set this whole thing up. There just aren’t enough of us to handle something of this magnitude. Plus… I’d like to go on the rides too.” She snickered.

Sunset laughed too. “I get that. It would be a shame to set all this up and not have the chance to enjoy it.”

“There’s still about a half-hour before opening time. I’m going to just walk around for now and check for any problems, and address the crowd when we open.”

Sunset just chatted with Twilight and the rest as they walked. When it was time they headed near the main gate to the large crowd of ponies. Twilight’s speech was rather short. She mainly just thanked all of them for coming and encouraged them to donate as much as they were able. As everyone put in their donations and began to enter the park Twilight returned to them.

“Well, that’s it for my princess obligations. Let’s go donate some bits and hit up the rides!”

“YEAH!” they agreed.

Once they gave up their bits Pinkie asked, “So what do you guys wanna do first?”

“Sunset’s our guest,” said Fluttershy brightly. “She should choose first.”

“Me?” Sunset said in mild surprise. She looked left and right, then up, and she smiled. “Let’s start with something to get the blood pumping.”

Rainbow got a smug grin on her face. “Now this is a mare after my own heart. A roller coaster is the best way to start off the festivities.”

Fluttershy’s face sank. “I just had to open my mouth,” she remarked with a hopeless sigh.

“I… I believe I shall have to decline,” Rarity said in a dignified tone that didn’t quite match her face.

“Nonsense!” said Applejack, pushing Rarity toward the ride. “Ya’ll love it.”

“No, that’s quite all right.” She tried backing up, but she wasn’t strong enough. “I’m fine.”

Rainbow put a hoof around Fluttershy. “So you getting in line or do we have to do what they’re doing?” she asked with a wink. Fluttershy let out a small, frightened squeak. “Come on. I’ll sit next to you.”

Fluttershy let out a pained groan. “Okay,” she said in a barely audible whisper.

“That’s the spirit!” Rainbow said joyfully, gently shaking her.

Spike jogged over to Rarity and Applejack. “I’ll sit with you, Rarity. I’ll protect you!”

Pinkie Pie grabbed Apple Bloom. “Come on, cousin!”

“Sure, Pinkie,” she responded, “seein’ as my sis already chose her partner.”

“Sunset, come sit with me,” said Twilight.

“Sounds good,” she replied.

Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle looked at each other. “I think we just got slighted,” said Scootaloo.

Sweetie Belle good-naturedly rolled her eyes. “I guess I’m stuck with you.”

Scootaloo turned her nose up. “Hmph! Maybe I’ll make you ride alone.”

“No way!” Sweetie responded, sounding panicked.

Scootaloo laughed. “Oh, fine.”

Each of the eleven took their seats inside a cart, along with several other ponies. Once all the cars were full the bars were lowered to keep them all in place so they didn’t fall out. They weren’t even moving yet but Fluttershy was already trembling like crazy and holding onto Rainbow.

Rarity wasn’t faring much better as the cart began to move forward, slowly climbing an incline.

“Here it comes!” Rainbow said excitedly as they reached the peak, going forward about twenty feet before reaching the descent, and she cheered as they went down.

Rarity screamed, clinging to Spike, who got hearts in his eyes, holding back onto her. Applejack had a cocky grin on her face as she saw Rarity’s terror.

On and on they went. Sunset’s heart was pumping in excitement as they did a loop-de-loop. Feeling reckless she took her hooves off the bars, putting them in the air. Twilight followed suit and the two of them felt exhilarated.

When the ride finished up most of them got up. Spike was disappointed, as Rarity finally let go of him. Fluttershy was still trembling. As Rainbow gently nudged her she looked up, fearful tears coming down her eyes. When she saw she was free she hopped out of the car as fast as she could, running away.

Rainbow followed her, getting in front of her, hugging her. “That was awesome, Fluttershy! Why don’t we go to the petting zoo for a little while to calm your nerves?”

“T-t-that s-sounds g-g-g-g-great!” she stuttered out.

Rainbow waved to the rest. “I’ll meet you guys in a little while.” She picked Fluttershy up and took off with her.

“That may have been a bit much for her,” said Applejack.

“Oh, and it wasn’t for ME?” Rarity said angrily.

“Oh, come on,” Applejack said innocently. “Ya got ta be all cuddly-wuddley with yer Spiky-Wikey. Isn’t that enough?”

Rarity just gave her a dirty look.

“I certainly didn’t mind,” Spike said contentedly, little hearts appearing over his head.

“Let’s get some food!” Pinkie said, hopping off toward a concession stand, grabbing some cotton candy and popcorn.

They went on a spinning teacup ride while Pinkie pigged out on junk food.

By the time they were done Rainbow was back. “Fluttershy said she wants to stay by the animals for now while she cools off. Poor thing,” she said sincerely. “She said she didn’t want to ruin my good time since she knows hanging out with a bunch of animals isn't my thing, so she insisted I come back to you guys.”

“Ya have ta give her credit, though,” Applejack remarked. “That she even went on a ride like that took a lotta guts.”

“I’ll go keep her company,” offered Sweetie Belle. “I like animals too. I bet there are some real cute ones over there.”

“That’s sweet of you,” Rarity said, pride clear in her voice.

Sweetie Belle let out a little squee as she took off, always loving to get praise from her big sister.

Following that they went on a water slide, and splashed around in a pool for a while.

From time to time the group would split up. Scootaloo took off to compete against Button Mash in some arcade games, and Rainbow Dash and Applejack dared each other to go on the most adventurous and scary rides.

Eventually they’d all meet up again. As the hours passed by Sunset lost herself in just being part of the group.

Late in the afternoon Scootaloo began to get excited. “Rainbow Dash! It’s almost time. You ready?”

“Oh, yeah!” she responded, getting her game face on.

“Ready for what?” Sunset asked, getting infected by their enthusiasm.

“Me and the squirt here are going to put on a show for the feeble, simple masses.”

“Squirt, my butt!” said Scootaloo. “Just because you’re a little more skilled than me…”

“A little,” Rainbow said with a loud snicker. “Whatever helps you sleep at night.”

Scootaloo sighed, torn between exasperation and gratitude. “Well, I can’t deny that having you as a goalpost and a teacher has helped me to excel.” She looked over at her cutie mark. “You pushed me to define myself and what I wanted to strive for, and through that I learned who I really was and what I should become.”

As Scootaloo lowered her ego Rainbow followed in turn. “Well, hey. We’re a joint act playing off of each other’s skills. We’re not competing today, and I wouldn’t have chosen you as my partner if we didn’t have roughly comparable skills.”

Sunset turned to Twilight. “Are the rest of you showing off skills too?”

“Oh, no," she responded. "I don’t care to show off my abilities. We already had enough of that nonsense with Trixie.”

“Trixie?”

Twilight shook her head. “I keep forgetting you’re not up to speed. She was a vain stage magician who made outlandish claims, and when called on them showed she couldn’t put her money where her mouth was.”

They headed off towards the corner of the park as Twilight and the rest explained about Trixie’s first visit to Ponyville.

As she went to tell about Trixie's return visit for revenge they arrived at a big half-pipe. A crowd of ponies had already gathered. "Well, look at that. I guess I'll have to tell you later on."

Scootaloo went into her saddle bag and took out the key to her scooter lock. Unlocking it she grabbed her scooter and flew to the top of the incline. Rainbow Dash was in the air. "Helloooooo, citizens of Ponyville!" Scootaloo called out. "Are you ready for a show that's gonna knock your hooves off?"

Cheering came from the crowd.

"Alright, then!" said Rainbow Dash, doing a loop-de-loop, "then keep your eyes on us. Ready, Scootaloo?"

"You know it, Rainbow Dash!"

The two of them looked at each other and nodded. Scootaloo jumped, going down the incline. Using the momentum she flapped her wings hard as soon as she cleared it. She did this several times, going up higher and higher into the sky until she landed on a cloud Rainbow set up.

Sunset felt a little uneasy. “She isn’t going to do what I think she is, is she?”

She got her answer to her question a few seconds later as Scootaloo hopped off the cloud with a loud, “WOOOHOOOOOO!”

Going down much faster than she came up she did a couple of spins until she hit the incline, hitting the other side and heading back into the air within seconds. She did continuous backflips until she hit the other side of the incline again.

Down she went, and when she reached the other side once more she went flying far forward toward a nearby tree. Grabbing it with her hooves she swung around a couple of times before flinging herself backward.

As Scootaloo headed toward the other side Rainbow began to place clouds around ahead of Scootaloo, each one alternating in height and direction from each other.

As Scootaloo hit the air she spun upside-down as she neared a cloud, using her hoof to kick off toward a cloud beneath her. She jumped off that one into the air, flipping again and repeating the pattern with the rest of the clouds until she jumped off the last one toward the grassy ground.

Rainbow Dash created a tornado between the two to give Scootaloo more air, and she landed smoothly back onto the track.

This time as Scootaloo reached the other side and took to the air Rainbow was waiting on the other side. Just as Scootaloo began to lose momentum Rainbow grabbed her back hooves, taking them off the board and flipping Scootaloo up higher.

Scootaloo flipped herself, using her momentum to throw her scooter up higher before grabbing Rainbow’s hooves and doing the same. They repeated this a few times until they were up near the clouds again.

Rainbow was now flying on her back, her hooves up in the air and slowly descending as Scootaloo kept hopping around on Rainbow’s hooves with her own hooves, using her back hooves to continually pump her scooter into the air.

When they were halfway down Scootaloo pumped her hooves one more time before the two of them raced downward in spirals, creating a big tornado. Faster and faster they flew around each other until they were almost touching the ramp.

The scooter got sucked into it and rocketed back into the air, and Rainbow abruptly grabbed Scootaloo and flung her into the middle, propelling her into the air as well.

Scootaloo reached her scooter, putting her front hooves on it and twisting so she was upside down on it, angling towards the edge of the half-pipe. Putting her back hooves on the handlebars for balance she went swiftly down the incline to the other side. At the right moment she gave a swift yank on the handlebars before flipping off of it toward the center of the ramp. She landed almost dead center, catching her scooter as it flew toward her.

Applause and cheering went out through the crowd. Scootaloo gave a few humble bows as Rainbow gave her a pat on the shoulder. “Enjoy it while you can,” she said competitively.

Scootaloo met her gaze. “Bring it on anytime,” she said with a wink.

“U-u-um… excuse me,” said a small voice.

Scootaloo turned to look and saw a pegasus filly standing in front of her, awe on her face. She had a pink coat, with a red mane styled up like a rose in bloom, with a short green tail that looked like grass. “D-d-do you think I can get your autograph?” she asked, her face going red as she held up the quill and parchment.

Scootaloo was flattered. No one had ever asked for her autograph before. “Sure,” she replied, a little embarrassed. “What’s your name, little one?”

“M-m-my name is Rose Blossom. I really want to be a great scooterist like you when I get older, but I’m not that good yet.” She rubbed her head, her blush now from a different kind of embarrassment. “We’re kinda poor, so I can only use my friends scooter, and he gets annoyed sometimes because I’m always asking to borrow it. I can’t help it, though. I just REALLY love to scooter, and watching all those cool moves you pulled off just makes me want to try so much harder.”

Scootaloo gave her a warm smile as she wrote the autograph and handed it over. Lowering herself so she was on Rose’s level she said, “Well, Rosie, I can give you lessons, if it’s okay with your parents.”

Her eyes lit up. “REALLY?” she practically shouted.

“Yes, but only if you promise you’ll work really, really hard.”

“I will! I promise!”

“I see. In that case…” She turned around and grabbed her scooter. “I want you to have this.”

Rose was shocked. “You… you’re really just gonna give me your scooter?”

“I have another one at home. Now, this is the scooter I used growing up, so it has a lot of sentimental value to me, so you have to promise me you’ll take good care of it.”

“I will!”

“Good. In that case I’m now your tutor.” She looked at Rainbow Dash, thinking of their camping trip to Rainbow Falls. “No. I’ll do you one better. You’re now my little sister. Would you like that?”

Rose’s eyes filled with tears. She could barely compose a response, and after a few failed attempts she just fell sobbing onto Scootaloo.

Scootaloo held onto her, knowing the way she felt. “I’ll take that as a yes and thank you,” she said warmly.

When Rose got herself under control she said thickly, “Thank you, Scootieloo.”

“Scootaloo,” she corrected.

“Whatever,” she responded. “How about BIG SIS? Oh, can I meet you at the park after school tomorrow?”

“Sure thing, Rosie.”

Rose Blossom let out a squee as she took the scooter, and kicked off it with extreme delight.

“That was really sweet of you,” said Rainbow.

“Friendship and the lessons we learn is something passed on from one pony to another. You taught me that important lesson when you took me under your wing. Now that I’m grown up it’s time that I start helping the next generation.”

“Well said, squirt,” she replied, mussing up Scootaloo’s mane.

They wrapped up their day at the carnival with a big fireworks show. Lights of all colors and shapes exploded against the sky, the perfect ending to the festivities.

While most of them were content to just lie on the grass and look at the stars and just relax for the time being, Pinkie ran back off toward Ponyville. When questioned why, she would only say it was a surprise.

Maybe twenty minutes later she returned, telling all of them to get up and follow her. Though comfortable, they complied, heading back into town. When they arrived at the Golden Oaks Library Pinkie was a ball of energy, telling all of them to go inside.

The lights were all out, and they could barely see by the faint moonlight. Once they were all inside Pinkie closed the door. “Are you all ready?”

“Ready for wha-OW!” Rainbow cried out. “I can’t see anything.”

“Hold on, let me find the light switch,” said Pinkie, fumbling around the wall. “Found it!”

As the room was flooded with light Sunset gasped, before collapsing into hysterical laughter on the floor.

“SURPRISE!” Pinkie said happily over Sunset’s giggles.

Applejack wondered what was so funny, until she saw the banner stretching from one side of the room to the other, and her mouth hung open, disbelief on her face. Pinkie had actually done it. The banner read, just as she’d said before, “I used to be a student of a princess until I got into a big fight with her and ran away into another world but now I’m back and ready to apologize.”

Rainbow just facepalmed at seeing it.

Twilight, Rarity, and Fluttershy found it mildly amusing and were more subtle in their reactions.

Pinkie Pie pulled Sunset off the ground and said, “Let’s party!”

Chapter 5: The worst discovery

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Sunset felt more relaxed than she had in a while. There was a calm feeling in the air as she looked around at her friends, just sitting quietly in the afterglow of her welcoming party.

“Aw, man,” said Rainbow Dash with a yawn. “Now that was a party. I’m about ready to pack it in for the night.”

“Same here,” said Rarity.

“So how are you feeling, Sunset?” asked Fluttershy kindly. “Do you feel ready now?”

Sunset let out a gentle sigh. “Yeah. I think I am.”

“That’s great!” said Twilight. “Princess Celestia should be over in the morning.”

“WHAT?” Sunset cried out, the sleepy, calm feeling disappearing in an instant.

“I told her to come to us. I thought you’d be more comfortable with that.”

“Oh, no. No no no no no.” All her anxiety was rushing back.

“Come on, Sunset,” said Applejack encouragingly, “Buck up. At least ya don’t have ta go all the way ter Canterlot.”

“I know, I know! It IS better that way, but what if she comes in the room and sees me?”

Rainbow’s eyebrow went up. “Umm… isn’t that the point? Isn’t that why you’re here?”

“No! I mean, yes! But I don’t want her getting the wrong idea. I mean, did you TELL her that I was here in your letter?”

“No,” Twilight responded. “I knew you weren’t ready yet, and so I didn’t want Celestia rushing over here to see you.”

“SEE?” Sunset said strongly, gesturing at Twilight.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand, darling,” said Rarity.

“Me neither,” said Pinkie Pie. “I mean, you came to be all-” she bowed and adopted a regal voice-“I’m sorry, mine dear sun princess. I ask thine forgiveness and that we-ith be-ith friends…ith.”

Twilight shook her head. “Pinkie, she’s not Princess Luna. And even she has learned to adjust her dialogue to fit with the times.”

Sunset let out a small giggle. “Look, I’m trying to say that Twilight hasn’t explained the situation to her, so if she sees me here before Twilight lets her know she might get the wrong idea.” She gestured with her hoof to the glass case in the room. “I mean, you have the Elements of Harmony sitting right there in the open.”

Twilight got a thoughtful look on her face, rubbing her hoof with her chin. “Yeah, I see your point. Seeing you out of the blue with no warning might make her suspicious.”

“What’s the big deal?” said Rainbow. “Just sleep with someone else for tonight if you’re that worried.”

“And how do I know Celestia won’t stop by any of your houses before seeing Twilight?” asked Sunset. “Maybe she’ll be in the mood for an apple or a morning snack. It’s too risky.”

“Oh, come on!” Rainbow said, sounding mildly annoyed. “What are the chances of that?”

“Rainbow Dash,” Fluttershy said gently, “Sunset has had some hard times in the past. I know how hard it can be to confront someone you’re scared of. Don’t be so hard on her.”

“It’s not that I WANT to be hard on her, but she just discarded all of us. Where is she supposed to sleep, then? On a park bench? Oh, wait. Celestia might fancy a nice stroll in the park first. Either pick one of us or you’re going to have to leave Ponyville for the night, so which is it?”

“Hmm,” Applejack said. “I guess I could see if my Aunt an’ Uncle Orange can take her in fer a night.”

“But they’re all the way out in Manehatten,” said Rarity. “That’s a bit of a ride.”

“OH!” Twilight said excitedly, her eyes twinkling.

“What?” said Rarity.

“Zecora!”

“Zecora?” said Rainbow Dash questioningly, but then her eyes lit up. “Oh!

“Oooh!” all five of them said almost simultaneously.

“That’s brilliant!” said Rarity.

“Who’s Zecora?” asked Sunset.

“She’s a friend of ours,” said Fluttershy. “She lives in the middle of the Everfree Forest.”

“Whoa,” Sunset said, impressed. “She actually LIVES there?”

“Uh-huh. “ She nodded. “Princess Celestia has absolutely no reason to be going into the Everfree Forest, so there’s no chance you’ll run into her on accident there, and you’ll still be close by.”

“Yeah,” said Twilight, nodding. “And she has no direct connection to the princess like the rest of us. I don’t think she’s ever seen the princess aside from pictures, so Princess Celestia wouldn’t just pop in there casually to say hi, either.”

“Would she want to take me in?” asked Sunset.

“It’s not like you’re going to be moving in. It’s only for a night. Friends do things for friends. If she says no then we’ll just have to make a new plan.”

“Alright,” said Sunset after a few seconds.

Spike yawned. “Well, you guys have fun.” As he stretched he added, “I’m gonna hit the hay.”

“Okay,” said Twilight, patting his head. “Goodnight, Spike.”

The seven of them left the library, heading in the direction of the forest. “Y’know,” said Fluttershy, “my house is right next to the Everfree Forest. It’s almost like a backyard for me, but I barely use it. There is a lot of scary stuff in there, but so long as my friends are with me I know I’ll be fine.”

“That’s surprising,” said Sunset. “I would think a… um…” She hesitated, not wanting to sound insulting.

“Scaredy-pony,” Fluttershy said, without a hint of shame.

“Yeah, that. I would think someone like you wouldn’t want to live so close to the Everfree.”

“Well, the creatures in the forest tend to keep to themselves. Only Timberwolves usually leave the forest, and even they don’t come out too often.

“We’ve had some scary adventures there. One time Twilight got turned to stone by a cockatrice.”

Sunset gasped. “I guess you had to bring her to Princess Celestia to restore her.”

“Nope!” said Twilight. “Fluttershy scared it so badly that it turned me back.”

Sunset paused. “Fluttershy?” she said incredulously.

Fluttershy giggled. “That’s right,” she replied, a confident smile on her face.

“HOW?”

“She gave it the Stare!” said Applejack.

“The… Stare?”

“Yep,” said Rainbow Dash, smirking. “I know it’s hard to believe, but when she gets in a certain state of mind she just gets this strange power to make others fear her simply by glaring at them. Besides the cockatrice, she also reduced a dragon to tears.”

Sunset’s eyes went wide. She couldn’t picture that. “Heh! Remind me to never get on your bad side, Fluttershy.”

“Oh, I would never use it on a fellow pony,” she said in a comforting voice. “You don’t need to worry. And I don’t have full control over it anyway. I only really use it to protect my friends, and you’re a friend now too.” She nuzzled Sunset.

Sunset smiled widely as they walked on.

They continued chatting for the next few minutes, going deeper and deeper into the forest, Twilight using her horn to light up the area. “There it is!” said Twilight, spotting Zecora’s hut. Approaching it she gave a few raps on the door. “Zecora! It’s Twilight. Are you home?”

A few seconds passed, and then the door opened. “Greetings, Princess Twilight. Is everything all right?” said Zecora. Looking over her shoulder she saw the rest of the group. “Late at night all this company. Do you have some dire need of me?”

Zecora saw Sunset giving her a weird look. “And here is one I don’t know. Why is it she stares at me so?”

Sunset flushed, realizing she was being rude. “Oh, I’m sorry. I just… wasn’t expecting…. I thought Twilight was bringing me to see a pony.”

“Oh!” Twilight said, gently smacking her forehead. “That’s right. We’re used to it now, but you’ve never met her before.

“Sunset Shimmer, this is Zecora. She’s a zebra.”

“Oh!” Sunset replied with interest. “So this is a zebra. I’ve actually never seen one before. I did read about them, but that was a long time ago.”

Pinkie Pie hopped over, saying, “We all used to fear Zecora because she was different, and she was a total outcast. We all avoided her, thinking she was up to no good when she’d come into town.”

“Until we actually took the time to get to know her,” said Fluttershy, “and we found out that she was a very sweet zebra.”

“She tried to warn us about these flowers that gave us all strange ailments,” said Rainbow, “but we didn’t want to listen. And then we went and blamed her for it, even though she was going out of her way to whip up a restorative medicine to fix us up.”

“We judged her based on her appearance,” said Twilight, “and we were totally wrong. In the end we got everything cleared up, and now she’s a good friend. She’s even the entertainer for our Nightmare Night celebrations now.”

Sunset closed the distance between her and Zecora. “I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong impression. I… I know what it’s like to be an outcast myself. Can we be friends?” She nervously put out her hoof.

Zecora smiled, meeting her hoof. “Yes, yes, that is fine. Any friend of Twilight is a friend of mine.”

As she lowered her hoof Sunset wondered whether Zecora was a poet, or if her rhyming shtick was a zebra thing. She didn’t voice that question. She didn’t want to offend Zecora right after they had started a friendship.

“Listen, Zecora,” started Twilight, “I have a big favor to ask of you.

"Sunset here is from… out of town. She has an important message to deliver to the princess, but they parted previously on bad terms, so she’d like me to set up the meeting between them. However, she’s nervous she’ll run into the princess before I can explain the situation, so she’d feel more comfortable if she spends the night somewhere she’s unlikely to run into her. It would only be for a night. I’m expecting the princess in the morning.”

Zecora turned to Twilight. “When getting an order from a princess, what more can one say but 'yes?'”

Twilight shook her head hard. “No, no, no!” She didn’t know if she was ever going to get used to that. “It’s not an order! It’s a request. And I don’t want you to treat me special just because I’m a princess. If you don’t want to do it then I want you to be honest.”

“Yes, yes, I understand, but I’ll still choose to lend you a hand.”

Sunset bowed her head. “Thank you, Zecora. I promise not to be a burden.”

“I admire your attitude. It’s always nice to hear appreciation and gratitude.”

Applejack yawned. “Welp, now that that’s settled I’m about ready ta hit the hay, so I’ll bid ya good night.”

“Same here,” said Fluttershy, yawning as well. “A Pinkie Pie party always wears me out.”

Sunset was hoping that they’d stay a little longer so she’d have time to settle in a little bit, but Zecora didn’t know about her past, so it wasn’t like she had to work on convincing her that she was good. At least she had that.

“Goodnight, everyone,” said Sunset meekly. “I’ll see you all in the morning.” She sighed. “And then I can put all this behind me.”

Twilight gave her a hug. “Goodnight, Sunset. It really was great having you here. By tomorrow you’ll laugh at your worries when you and Celestia are reunited and crying your eyes out.” She winked before turning around and walking off, the rest of them following suit.

Sunset turned to Zecora, feeling a little awkward. She hoped Zecora wasn’t going to probe into why she and Celestia had split apart. “Well, then. Why don’t we go inside?”

Zecora nodded, and the two of them went in, Zecora shutting the door behind her.

Sunset looked around the relatively small house, unable to keep herself from staring at the décor. It was like nothing she had ever seen. There were big masks, bottles of all kinds on shelves, a big cauldron with a fire under it in the middle, and glass jars hanging up in the air attached to vines. She understood why ponies would feel off-put at the sight.

“So this is my first time meeting a zebra. What exactly do you do here, Zecora?”

“I am a maker of potions. When there is an ailment to fix I go through the motions.” She gestured with her hoof to the numerous bottles, then the cauldron. “I throw in a little of this, and a dash of that, and I mix it up in no time flat.”

“A potion maker, huh?” Sunset responded. “That’s interesting. I’ve never met one before. What kinds of potions can you make?”

“All kinds, child. Let your imagination run wild. From the common to the exotic, to the pure to the demonic.”

Sunset felt a shiver go down her spine. HAD Zecora heard of her before?

Zecora quickly cleared her throat, heat suffusing her face. “Of course, just because I can doesn’t mean I will do. I would never brew a potion to harm anyone, and that includes you.

“So what is it you do?” Zecora said quickly. “How about you?”

“W-well, I’m still learning my way. I used to be a part of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. However, I grew too arrogant because I was better than the rest of my class, and it went to my head. I demanded more than she was willing to give, and when I didn’t get my way I abandoned my studies with her.

“Now that I’ve had some time to reflect and learned new things I’ve made a fresh start. I just want to clear up this matter from the past before I can truly move on.”

“That is a noble goal indeed. Things go horrible for those consumed by greed. But when one learns to find a different way, the sun is always there to brighten your day.”

Sunset thought of her friends, and a gentle grin came to her face. They truly were the light that made her fight on when she was willing to give up.

She queried Zecora for more detail over her past circumstances, and got to hear how hard it was for her just trying to get other ponies to talk to her. The few times they did they would usually talk like they wanted her gone. As a result she didn’t often go into town. It wasn’t until the incident with the poison joke flowers that the barrier was finally breached and they got to know each other.

“It was all because of that little filly. She thought all the rumors about me were just plain silly. She opened her mind and gave me a chance, not holding to everyone else’s stance.”

Sunset sat down on the bed, her head down as she put her hooves on her legs. “I know that feeling. Back when I finally realized what a jerk I was I strove to change. However, all those that I stepped on and looked down on wouldn’t just forget what I had done to them overnight. Even though I tried really hard I only had a few willing to accept my apology and help me onto the right path. Little by little I won over the old crowd until they believed me. Now Celestia is the only one left.”

Zecora went to a shelf, pulling down a bottle and walking towards the cauldron. “What you are saying is wise. Before one can learn to run one must first open their eyes. When the mind is shut and the heart is closed, all that comes out of it is strife and foes.”

Opening the bottle she poured a small amount of a yellow liquid inside, making it bubble and froth.

Hopping off the bed Sunset took a look. “So what is this potion?”

“This brew is a mixture to stave off pain. It saves time by cutting through the toughest stains.”

“What does pain have to do with cleaning stains?”

Zecora looked up at Sunset’s horn. “To a unicorn like you it may be nothing to clean a floor. However, constant scrubbing can make an earth pony sore.”

Sunset felt her hoof twinge sympathetically as she recalled having to rebuild the entrance to Canterlot High. “Yeah, I get that.” Looking down at the potion she asked, “Can I help? I figure it’s the least I can do to repay you for letting me spend the night. Also, I’ve never tried potion making. It sounds fun.”

Zecora nodded. “Well, surely I would be a doof, to refuse a willing, helpful hoof.”

Sunset felt a tingle in her stomach. She found herself relating to Zecora, and it was always nice to have another friend, especially one that had similar problems.

For the next ten minutes Sunset handed over supplies when asked. With her magic it saved Zecora a lot of time. She stirred the potion when Zecora told her to, and then they had to wait another thirty minutes for it to thicken, adding new ingredients as necessary. After it was fully prepared Sunset used her magic to dip containers in it and seal them.

Sunset was sweating from the heat of the potion, but she had no complaints. She had had a blast. During the process Zecora gently hummed words in a language she had never heard. Even though she didn’t understand the words the intonation was clearly benevolent, and she found herself gently bobbing her head to the song.

Once the cauldron was washed out and scrubbed Zecora brought it back inside. “Asante. Wewe ni aina Zaidi.”

“I’m sorry?” Sunset said, an eyebrow going up.

Zecora giggled. “My native language is still on my mind. What I said was 'Thanks,' and that 'you are kind.'”

“Oh,” Sunset replied, her confusion replaced with an embarrassed smile. She bowed her head. “I am honored. I can see why you’re so popular in Ponyville. Like the others said before I was a little bit wary of you, but now that I spent some time with you I can see you’re just like us. You’re a lot of fun to work with, and your singing is beautiful.”

“I give my thanks for you praise, and am most glad your assumptions have changed their ways.” Zecora looked toward the cauldron. “With your help I got through my work twice as fast. Should you wish, that potion does not have to be the last.”

Sunset’s eyes lit up. “Really?”

Zecora giggled again. “A hard worker is something I adore. I am honored you wish to help out some more.” She picked up a large jug and pulled off the cork, pouring the contents inside the cauldron. “It all starts with a jug of water, just as without a mother there can be no daughter.”

Sunset helped to pour the jugs in until the cauldron was half full. Sunset picked up all the empty jugs. “I’ll go fill these. Is there a place to get water nearby?”

“The answer is yes.” She pointed with her hoof. “You just need to head west.”

Sunset nodded. “Gotcha.”

It took a minute but she eventually reached a clearing with a watering hole. Besides an overturned log and some bugs there didn’t seem to be anything else in it. She filled up all the jugs and brought them back to the hut, placing them with the rest.

“Kuwakaribisha nyuma. Ni vizuri kuona tena.”

“So what is it this time?”

“”Welcome back, my friend. It is good to see you again.””

“Your language is pretty interesting. The difference in the way we talk is distinct, but I can tell you’re saying nice things even without the translation.

“Well, I’m ready to keep working.”

Just like before she grabbed all the ingredients as directed. “So what are we making this time?”

Zecora tilted a container over, and powder came out of the small holes in it. There was a flash and a sharp sound. “This one I don’t really have to say. Just give a sniff, and let your nose lead the way.” She grabbed a few daffodils and lilacs and dumped them in too.

Almost instantly the room became suffused with a flowery scent. Sunset took a deep sniff, the smell so soothing it almost put her to sleep.

“For those who cannot sleep their best, this brew helps them to find their rest. For the insomniac who stays awake all night and all day, taking this potion helps their dreams come out to play.”

Sunset picked up a green bottle, looking to Zecora for approval.

Zecora gave her an appraising look. “Beware. One must take great care. Otherwise they will create undrinkable fare.

“For that bottle half of it is desired. And for the blue one just a smidge is required.”

Sunset nodded. Tipping it over she poured most of the bottle in, and she noticed the brew turn from orange to blue. She picked up the blue bottle, gently turning it over. A drop hung off the end of the bottle, and Sunset anxiously waited for it to fall in, her tongue hanging out the side of her mouth.

“Aah!” Sunset yelled as a bird cawed nearby. The bottle fell out of her hooves, landing right in the cauldron.

It immediately began to rapidly fizz and bubble, hissing loudly, turning a nasty black-brown color. Sunset gasped.

Zecora grabbed her hoof. “Too strong. Won’t be long. We must get out, or you’ll have a reason to pout.”

The two of them ran for the door, going outside and slamming it behind them. Just a few seconds later there was a loud bang, and the sound of things breaking inside.

Zecora let out a sigh of relief.

Sunset felt her stomach twinge as she cautiously opened the door. The cauldron was in a million pieces, glass littered the floor, the bed had a big hole in it, and the shelves were all knocked over.

Zecora walked in, looking at the scene of destruction with a look of despair.

“I-I can fix this!” Sunset said, quailing at the look Zecora gave her. “I mean it.” Her horn glowed, and piece by piece the cauldron took its shape again. Once the last one was set her horn flashed, and the cauldron glowed bright. When the aura faded the cauldron looked as good as new, with no cracks or chips.

“See? I can fix this mess.”

Zecora let out a heavy breath. “You clean,” she said roughly. “I must collect more ingredients.” She turned around and stormed out without another word.

Sunset sighed heavily as Zecora left, noticing that Zecora hadn’t rhymed. When someone changed their usual mannerisms you knew they were angry. “Way to go, Sunset STUPID!” she said angrily to herself. “Why didn’t you just use your magic?” Her horn glowed as she began to fix up all the broken bottles. “We were having such a good time, getting along so well. Now look what happened. You messed everything up, as usual.”

She picked up the shelves, putting them back upright as she continued fixing broken objects, verbally berating herself all the while. When all the glass was cleaned up she went to the last part of the house: Zecora’s sleeping area. The hut was all one room, but where Zecora slept had a wall on one side, making it more private.

She saw a few splintered drawers and long pieces of wood belonging to a dresser near the bed. As she repaired the damage she noticed a brown box in the wreckage, possibly a jewelry box. The lid was missing, and it was empty. She took out the box, setting it aside for the time being as she finished repairing the damage. She saw a couple more objects that had been in the wreckage, but the lid and what was inside, if anything, was nowhere to be found.

Sunset mused to herself. “Well, either it was like that to begin with, it got vaporized by the explosion, or-“ she turned her head left “-it’s under the bed.”

She looked underneath the bed, seeing something in front of her. She reached her hoof in, and retrieved the lid. “Well, that’s one thing down.” She reattached the lid to the box.

Looking underneath the bed again she thought she saw something in the corner, but it was too dark to know for sure. After a few moments she gave herself a mental smack. “Magical unicorn, remember?” She lit up her horn, and the space under the bed became illuminated. “Aha!” she said victoriously, seeing what looked like a necklace. “Come here, you little sucker.”

As her magic aura lifted up the necklace she felt a shudder go through her body, a feeling of dread and cold making her gasp. Her head jerked up, hitting the bedframe. She saw stars for a few moments, her spell fading. She’d never had a reaction like that before. She stared down at the necklace, but nothing else happened. Cautiously, she forewent magic and crawled under the bed to grab it manually. She pulled it to herself and backed up until she could stand again, taking a look at it.

“That was odd,” she remarked to herself, staring at the necklace. It had a red diamond shaped jewel in the center, and a darkened pony with a horn and wings up top. She waited a little while, but still she didn’t get a reaction like she had before. “Maybe it’s just because I’m out of practice from not using magic for so long. In that other world I didn’t have a horn, after all. I had to survive on my own pluck and determination.

“Well, that doesn’t make much sense. Didn’t I just repair an entire room?” She shrugged. “Well, I don’t know what happened, but with this the room will be perfect again.

“Hmmm.” She couldn’t take her eyes off of the strange object. “I know I’ve seen this before! But where?” She strained her brain, thinking back to her lessons with Princess Celestia. “What was it?

“Oh!” she said, her face lighting up. “This is an old enchanted artifact. I think it was called the Alicorn Amulet.” She closed her eyes, thinking back to the book she had read about it in. “It… it increases a unicorn’s magical powers immensely…. It has some kind of protective enchantment on it that stops anyone but the user from taking it off…. And… and… something else.” There was a little more to it. There was supposed to be something else it did, but the knowledge kept slipping away from her.

Her eyes glazed over. “It increases a unicorn’s power immensely,” she said slowly to herself, the forgotten detail quickly becoming unimportant. She shook her head hard. “Stop it!” she said sternly to herself. “You don’t need that kind of power.” She imagined herself in that evil form from when she had put on the Element of Magic. “You’re not that kind of pony anymore.”

She placed the amulet back inside the box it came from and put it back in the drawer.

She sat down on the floor, surveying the room for anything she missed, but she couldn’t focus. Her thoughts kept returning to the Alicorn Amulet and Celestia. She thought of the looks every one of them gave her when they saw her and knew who she was. Those distrusting, scared looks.

“Twilight is so sure that Princess Celestia will forgive me if I just apologize, but I’ve done so many terrible things. I betrayed her. I ran away. I stole the greatest magical object in Equestria and tried to come back a conqueror. She won’t just forget about what I did if I come back and apologize. If I did something remarkable then she’d know she could trust me now.”

She envisioned some terrible monster attacking Ponyville, and shoving Twilight out of the way just as it went to stomp her. The two of them gave each other determined looks as they teamed up to take it down.

Twilight would bring her to the princess, telling the tale of how she, Sunset Shimmer, had saved her life. And then the Princess would walk up to her, tears in both their eyes, as she apologized and they hugged.

As her daydream faded she could feel the tears in real life. “I want to help. I do! But Twilight is an alicorn. If she can’t beat some monster then what use will I be? She also has the Elements of Harmony, but if one of her friends is out of town or knocked unconscious they’ll be useless. She needs a friend with great power to help her out in the toughest spots.” She looked over at the box again, using a spell to bring it over. “She needs me,” she said as she opened the box, staring at the Alicorn Amulet.

Her expression once more grew vacant. “With this I could stand by her side.” She came back to reality and sighed. “Yeah, I’m sure it’s likely a terrible monster is just going to HAPPEN to attack tomorrow, render the Elements useless, and force me to be the only one that can help.”

She let out another heavy breath. “Maybe Twilight is right. Maybe I AM making too big a deal about this. Maybe I should just apologize instead of hoping for a disaster to happen.”

Her heart was beating quickly as her eyes stayed right where they were. She could almost feel the power swirling inside of the Amulet.

She struggled with herself a few seconds more, then shook her head hard and slammed the box shut. “Stop! That’s enough.”

She felt a bead of sweat come down her face as she panted slightly. The box hovered in the air, going up and down, up and down, indecision plaguing her, before she finally forced herself to put it back again.

She took a deep breath, and then popped the box open again, pulling the Amulet toward her and putting it on. “One little test can’t hurt,” she said giddily, ignoring the flush of guilt beneath the surface as she ran outside.

Chapter 6: The spirit of the Amulet

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Sunset Shimmer giggled as she ran, trying to find a clearing to practice her new abilities. She didn’t want to choose one near Zecora’s hut. It took a few minutes of searching, but she finally found a space relatively clear of trees, with a watering hole and an overturned log.

Her horn began glowing, still the same green color, and she focused on the water, trying to lift up the entire ponds-worth. A bubble of water, only about the size of her head lifted up. The glow faded, and she let the water fall back down, a confused look on her face. She did a few more tests, but she couldn’t feel anything that special. It felt like her same old magic.

She tapped the Amulet a few times. “Is it broken?” she said to the air. She felt a tremor go through her as a joking voice spoke out to her.

“Do you really believe you’re worthy of the power of the Alicorn Amulet?” it asked.

Sunset crouched down slightly, getting into an attack position. “Who’s there? How do you know about the Amulet?”

“Such a sad sight you are. Always second best. Never good enough for those you cherish. A perpetual failure of a pony, one that couldn’t even get revenge properly.”

She felt her heart speeding up, her eyes looking all over for the source of the voice. She turned slowly in a circle, but the forest seemed still but for the voices of birds flying overhead. “What makes you think you know so much about me?”

“It’s obvious you haven’t changed a bit from who you were. You still want to rely on power to solve all your problems. That’s the real reason you put it on, isn’t it? You’ll use anything to achieve your ends, won’t you?”

She could feel her face getting flushed, the guilt from before blossoming again. Talking much more bravely than she felt she said loudly, “Why don’t you come out of your little hiding spot and face me, coward, instead of talking from the shadows?”

“That would be difficult. After all, I do not possess a body. However, you have already seen me. I’m very close by. In fact, I’m right next to you.”

A feeling of panic was setting in. She spun around quickly, still seeing no one. “What do you mean… you don’t have a body?”

“Silly foal. If I had a body do you really think I’d be sitting around your neck?”

Profound confusion pushed away her fear. “Around… my…” She put a hoof to the Alicorn Amulet. “Don’t tell me you’re…”

“Yes, indeed.”

Sunset sat down, finally realizing that she couldn’t pinpoint the voice because it was being transmitted directly to her brain. “I thought the Alicorn Amulet was just a power booster,” she said, now feeling curious. She hadn’t read in the book that it possessed a consciousness.

“No, no, no. It is much more than that. You cannot just have my power. You must prove yourself worthy of it first.”

Her eyes narrowing a little she tapped her hoof on the Amulet. “Hey, how did you know all that stuff about me? About my plans for revenge in the past?”

“I have my ways. When your magic touched mine I learned a great deal about you.”

Sunset thought back to the odd sensation that had gone through her the first time she had lifted the Amulet with her magic. “So that’s what that was,” she mused. “So… what? You read my mind or something?”

“Something like that, young unicorn. I felt your essence, and you formed a tenuous connection with me. It’s been quite a while since I’ve had an owner, so forgive me if I nudged you a little to put me on. It can get dreadfully boring sitting alone in the dark for years at a time.”

Sunset was quiet for a while, unsure of what to say. “So what are you?” she finally asked.

“Well, I don’t think that’s important. What I’m really interested in is you. I can see you seek the power to take Celestia off her throne and rule this world.”

Sunset twitched. “You’re wrong! That’s not my plan at all! That was in the past!”

“So then why put me on in the first place? Because you seek tremendous power, and you cannot accomplish your goals otherwise.”

“No, that’s not it!” she said firmly.

“Sunset, Sunset, Sunset,” it replied in a gently amused tone. “There’s no need to feel threatened. The Elements of Harmony freed you from the darkness clouding your heart. So why are you so nervous? Seeking power and wanting to rule is not a crime, when done with the right intentions. After all, somebody has to watch over the masses and make sure they’re doing well. Why not you?”

She stopped feeling so defensive, seeing it wasn’t attacking her. “I want to be a hero that others can look up to. I made a lot of mistakes, but now I want to go back and make things right.”

“But you don’t really want to say you’re sorry, do you? Hence why you’re trying to gain recognizance by deeds instead of words, hmm? You don’t really feel you were in the wrong for leaving. I don’t condemn you for it. Quite the opposite. I actually commend you for what you’re trying to do. After all, it’s only natural you don’t want to bow down before that false ruler of a princess. You can see her for what she truly is, can’t you? She’s a monster who plays the role of a model ruler to fool everyone else.”

Sunset turned her head away, feeling a familiar sensation in her gut. “That… was how I felt when I left, but she was right in the end.”

“Was she really? She lied to you. She told you that you couldn’t handle the advanced magic and visiting the other world. However, you proved that wrong and came within a hair of succeeding. Even without your magic you ruled over the school you went to. None dared to oppose you. You managed to swipe the Element of Magic right under Twilight’s nose, and you would have defeated her and returned a conqueror had the Element not betrayed you and deflected your magic.”

“Stop it!” she cried out, her voice cracking as she shivered, tears coming down her eyes. “I don’t want to go back to that place!” She shuddered as she remembered how pitch black the world used to look. “That cold and lonely existence.”

She heard a sound like a clicking tongue. “Ah, Sunset. I’m not saying you have to return to that way of life. I’m just pointing out that Celestia underestimated you.”

“So what if she did?” Her eyes clenched shut. “I was cruel and heartless, putting everyone down, until Twilight saved me from myself. I became a monster. I don’t want to ever feel like that again.”

“I understand,” it said sympathetically. “However, that doesn’t change the facts of the matter. Someone has to depose Celestia. Who would be better than you?”

She shook her head hard. “I don’t want to attack Celestia. What has she done to me? If I hadn’t been so…”

“Surely you understand. She has done many terrible things. Isn’t it funny how all those she 'cares' about wind up emotionally scarred? How anyone with any ambition wind up rendered powerless because she can’t stand the thought of anything being stronger than herself? That spirit of chaos, the unicorn king, and even her own sister.”

“All of them posed a great threat to Equestria. It only made sense to defeat them.”

“Can you imagine it, Sunset Shimmer? Being trapped in a prison of stone for all eternity? Unable to move, unable to do anything except exist? Completely aware of each and every second, knowing that there is absolutely nothing you can do about it? Wouldn’t you rather be dead? It’s a punishment for those who rose too high, so they would forever know their place. You’re lucky you didn’t get the same.”

Sunset Shimmer was starting to feel distinctly uncomfortable. She took a quick breath through her nose. “Twilight and her friends were able to reform Discord and Princess Luna. That wouldn’t have been possible if they had been killed. They would have died villains and stayed that way in everyone’s minds forever.”

“Fair enough,” it replied smoothly. “However, isn’t there something odd about that?”

“What do you mean?”

“If Twilight and her five buddies were able to turn those two to good then surely CELESTIA, far more powerful and knowledgeable, should have been able to do it as well. So why were they sealed away instead, as if it wasn’t worth the time to turn them to the right side? Because she wasn’t interested in that, that’s why.”

“Celestia was the one who ordered Twilight to unseal him!” she replied strongly.

“But not for HIS sake, was it? She had him unsealed because his magic would be useful in the future. He, himself, was unimportant.

“And as for Luna? That’s even more obvious she didn’t care. If Twilight and her squad could use the Elements to purge the darkness from Luna’s heart when they didn’t even KNOW her, then surely Celestia, who should love her sister more than anything, should have been able to do the same, hmm? Instead it was a thousand year stay at the moon for her.”

Sunset’s stomach was clenching hard, her breathing getting a little heavier as a familiar old anger began to eat at her calm. The red gem in the amulet began to glow faintly, gently pulsing. “It’s possible Celestia couldn’t do it. The… the Elements are supposed to be used in unison with other ponies.”

“Ah, but there is some concrete evidence that that is a lie.”

“And what evidence is that?” she said coldly.

“The book,” it responded simply. “Let me ask you something, Sunset Shimmer. Who was it that made the story prophesizing Nightmare Moon’s return? Being that she was the one who fought Nightmare Moon, it would have to be… Princess Celestia, right? Isn’t it just a little bit strange that she was sealed for one thousand years? “The stars will aid in her escape.” The sun is considered a star, is it not? Putting two and two together, Celestia deliberately released her sister from her imprisonment after enough time had passed, entrusting Twilight to do the deed of returning her back to normal.”

Sunset was shaking slightly. The voice was smooth as silk, speaking things that she herself had felt back then. She began to remember what had made her run away in the first place. “So then, what’s your explanation for the rest of it? If Celestia is just a power obsessed tyrant then why would she deliberately give control of such a vast power to her student?”

The spirit of the Amulet laughed, a mocking giggle like it should have been obvious. “Use your head, you silly girl. There’s two good reasons for it, and I can back that up with the most obvious evidence of all that it was all planned out.

“First off, why do you think Celestia didn’t offer the Elements to you? And the easiest answer is, simply, she was AFRAID of you.”

“Afraid?” she responded flatly. “A unicorn vs an alicorn. I would have been slaughtered.”

“Yes, there is a difference in magical strength, and you can’t fly, but that is irrelevant. Your true strength is in your individuality. You wouldn’t just conform to Celestia’s standards and do whatever she wished. You were too ambitious; too daring. You’ll notice that she smartened up the second time around. Her new apprentice is an idiot. Book smart, for sure, but naïve, always aiming to please. Because she’s so loyal Celestia is confident that her student will never betray her this time around.

“As for why Celestia would give that power to another… once more the answer is obvious: because she’s extremely lazy. She had a whole thousand years to study and increase her magic power, but still could do nothing against Discord when he broke free of his prison.”

“Still, that doesn’t prove it was all PLANNED! That’s insane!”

“Yes… she is.”

“Th-that’s not what I meant.”

“Let me ask you one final question, and it’s directly related to reason number two. What happened in the thousand years of Luna free solo rule? How many abominations and evil tyrants came to try and overthrow Celestia or take over Equestria?”

“Well, um… none really. At least as far as I know.”

“Exactly! For a whole millennium life was relatively good, but then all of a sudden in the span of a single year every single one of Celestia’s old adversaries came out of the woodwork? First it was Luna, then Discord, then Queen Chrysalis, King Sombra, and all the other problems in-between. It was all a test for Twilight, to make sure she was growing properly to fulfill her role as her majesty’s royal puppet. It was so she could justify it when Twilight suddenly 'earned' her promotion to Princess.”

A thoughtful frown came to her face. The spirit had a point. How could it just be mere coincidence that all those events happened randomly in such a short period of time? Her previous anger was getting stronger.

“Look!” she said sharply, letting out a huff, “I don’t know what’s right and what’s not, but I already told you before: I don’t want to go back to the way I was. I don’t want to start a war.” A few tears came down her eyes. “I was a monster back then. Whether Celestia is good or evil or right or wrong I don’t want to lose myself in hatred like I did in the past.”

“I understand, Sunset,” it responded calmly, “but things are different now than they were before, aren’t they? You’re NOT the same mare you were. The darkness was purged out of you. Your motivations are different now. You tried to brainwash a bunch of ponies and use them as a distraction for the guards while you fought Celestia with the power of the Element of Magic. Now you don’t want to involve peripheral victims. Celestia is coming here tomorrow, isn’t she? It’s when she’ll be the least under guard, so you can deal with her directly and leave the innocent out of the conflict.”

Sunset swallowed, her heart beating like a drum. “I said already I don’t want to fight.”

“Sunset,” it responded seriously, “it is not a crime to fight for good. Before you only fought for selfish reasons: for power and recognition. Now, though, that you have been purified, you can fight for the right reasons, to save Equestria from the tyrant that rules over them. You were always one with a good heart deep down, with drive and determination that surpasses even that of Twilight Sparkle. You have courage and strength and passion. Equestria needs you now, Sunset Shimmer. You’re the only one with the will to persevere, the one most capable for this task.

“A TRULY peaceful Equestria. Isn’t that worth fighting for? Isn’t that worth putting your misgivings aside to make a true reparation for your past misdeeds? Everyone would see you as a hero, and any mistakes you’ve made in the past would be forgotten. After all, isn’t that the whole reason you were reluctant to see Celestia in the first place? Because you felt you needed to do something heroic first to prove you’ve changed?

“So you purge Celestia from her unworthy spot on the throne, and free everyone of their fear. And then, at the end…”

For a few seconds the world faded away, and Sunset got a mental image of herself seated on the throne, wearing a crown and scores of ponies cheering, admiration shining on their faces.

It quickly faded away, leaving Sunset in tears as she gently sobbed.

“At the end, you’ll become the Queen of Equestria, the one who had the strength to do what no one else had the guts to do. You can start a new life, leading the next generation right, rather than having a ruler who expects a pony one tenth her age and experience to solve all her problems for her.

“It’s what you always wanted, isn’t it? What you always dreamed of?”

Sunset’s mind was in a whirl. It spoke to her like a dear friend she had known forever and could see her for everything she was. That image of her being the new queen was so compelling and beautiful. She did want it… she wanted it more than anything she had ever wanted before. However…

“I… I don’t know!” she said frantically, her voice cracking as the glow from the gem grew brighter and brighter. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if I can beat Celestia. I don’t know if I WANT to!”

“Settle yourself, Sunset,” it said kindly. “Panicking is beneath a pony of your stature. A ruler must rule over others. If your emotions rule over you then you’ll never make a good queen.”

“Ponies have been living under Celestia for over a millennium!” she said strongly, shivering. “Do you really think they’ll just plop me on the throne when I go and murder their leader? “

“Removing Celestia from the throne will indeed cause a gigantic shift in every way possible. Things will change immensely, which is why you need to be stronger than ever. You need to compose yourself. I know I’m asking the impossible of you, but Celestia is an ageless being. It’s not like we can just wait for her to pass away of old age. If someone doesn’t do something then nothing will ever change. You need to summon up all your courage and strength now, and resolve to do the right thing for everybody.

“In the turmoil that follows her passing someone will need to step up to lead the masses. Cadance has her own kingdom to rule, Twilight is still only just learning to socialize after spending most of her time in books in her youth, and Luna is still not fully trusted after her story became public knowledge. Thus, the only one who can fill the spot is you.”

Sunset was still fretting, the enormity of what it was expecting too much to comprehend all at once. Everything had made sense when she was controlled by bitterness and thoughts of revenge. Now, though, she couldn’t imagine the amount of work she would have to do if her plans came to fruition. “A ruler should be strong! They wouldn’t put some young brat like me on the throne. Luna would be the obvious next choice over me. She looks like a proper ruler. I’m just a unicorn. Even with this magic amplifier it still makes me look inferior to an alicorn. And what if I somehow get separated from you in an important battle? What if you get destroyed? Then the majority of my power will be gone! This is insane! I am mad at Celestia and, quite frankly, I think she should be taken off her throne, but this is too much!”

The spirit was quiet for a time, before saying. “Well… I had hoped to avoid this, but I guess now I have no choice. If an alicorn leader is what the ponies want, then I can help you there.”

Sunset looked down immediately, distracted from her rampaging emotions. “What? How?”

“I have something to reveal to you. The thing is… you already know quite a bit about me. You know who I am and have heard me mentioned many times.”

“I have?” she responded, her eyebrow going up. “How?”

“Well, I guess I should introduce myself. I am the famous spell-maker: Starswirl the Bearded.”

“What?” Sunset responded flatly. The gem of the amulet, which had been getting steadily brighter, dimmed slightly. “How is that possible?”

“I think you know the answer to that. Who else do you know that seals away those that oppose them for hundreds upon hundreds of years?”

“Celestia?” she said, disbelief in her voice.

“Exactly!”

“That doesn’t make any sense!” she said, a touch of anger in her voice. “There’s an entire wing of the library named after Starswirl. Celestia only ever spoke highly of him.”

“You mean… just like she did with you?”

Sunset flinched like she had been struck, memories playing of how it was in the early days of being Celestia’s student. “This is my student Sunset Shimmer; Brightest unicorn of her age I’ve ever met; Masters spells like they’re nothing; An extremely hard worker; I’m proud to call her my student.”

As time passed cracks appeared in their perfect relationship. She wanted to learn the more advanced spells, try out unusual magic, and really push her limits. But Celestia blocked her at every turn, slowly irritating her, up until their final confrontation. “There is more to spells than simple knowledge. You have an independent streak that is dangerous. Until you can realize that there is nothing more I am willing to teach you.”

Unable to convince her teacher she had decided to leave and make her own path, leaving everything she had known behind.

Tears came down her eyes as the bitterness of their final conversation returned to her.

“Sunset…,” the spirit said gently.

“Hmph!” she responded derisively. “So then, what did YOU do to earn her ire?”

“My real final spell was corrupted by Celestia. It was a spell… to turn a pony into an alicorn. You can surely imagine why Celestia wouldn’t care for that. Unlike her sycophant Twilight I didn’t beg at her heels like a dog.

“I was deep into research, discovering and creating new magic for the sheer enjoyment of the work. However, I finally came upon a wall: my own limits. I knew if I wanted to truly unlock all the secrets and theories and evolutions of magic that I would need more power. A lot more power than any unicorn alone could hope to achieve. A largely solitary figure, I didn’t wish to rely on the input of many unicorns for the required power, nor ask the alicorn sisters. As creating new magic can be a risky business I didn’t wish to put any in harm’s way but myself.

“So for the next few years I planned, I theorized, I worked, I experimented. However, the same limit that prevented me from discovering the deepest facets of magic in the first place also prevented me from reaching the finale of pony evolution. In order to attain more power… I would need more power. As a seemingly unresolvable contradiction I felt my passion slipping away, having to accept that I couldn’t broaden my horizons.

“I finally made the biggest discovery of my life: certain jewels can contain magical energy, such as the ones that make up the Elements of Harmony. By storing an exorbitant amount of energy inside a suitable gem I could use it as a substitute for the energy I could not muster alone.

“Along the way of my experiments, when I thought Celestia was great and a dear friend I told her of my plan. She tried to discourage me several times, but I always ignored her. I felt what I was doing was right. After searching for months I found a gemstone of a suitable size and capacity, setting it into a brooch I specially designed, the very one around your neck.”

Sunset pulled slightly at the Amulet to get a better view of it. “So that’s why it’s called the Alicorn Amulet?”

“Exactly. It was to be the means to foster my transformation. I spent a long time feeding as much spare energy I could into the jewel, until it felt full to bursting.

“The night finally came where I felt everything was ready. I placed the Amulet around my neck, ready to cast the spell that would ascend me to the greatest heights… but then Celestia burst in.

“She accused me of treason and plots of overthrowing the empire for disobeying her multiple attempts to stop me from continuing on. Before I could mount a proper defense she attacked, sealing my spirit inside the Amulet.

“I was still conscious inside there, just like her sister; just like the unicorn king; just like the draconequues. However, there was one big difference between their imprisonments and my own: I still had access to magic. She sealed me inside the gem I had spent months filling with energy, in effect fusing me with that great reservoir. Unfortunately, my control of that magic was very unstable, so largely I remained dormant. I could only use magic consistently when my mind and energy was fused with another unicorn, just like you.

“The only magic I could use regularly was 'hearing.' It is what has allowed me to see what is going on in Equestria despite being stuck in one place.

“Celestia, in the wake of my sealing, feigned ignorance over the circumstances and her involvement, and 'mourned' for my disappearance. She named a wing of the library in my honor, and to be sure things didn’t go the way they did before, changed the nature of my final spell.”

Sunset was listening attentively, her breathing heavy. “How did she change it? Twilight became a normal alicorn, didn’t she?”

“It became a curse, forcing a change of destinies for her friends. Once Twilight 'fixed it' Celestia used it as the catalyst to transform Twilight into an alicorn like her. In the process she stripped away Twilight’s free will. More and more she’s becoming Celestia’s mindless puppet, to be used to handle all of her business so SHE can sit lazily on her throne. Twilight keeps losing more and more of herself, all the while thinking it’s her own decision.”

Sunset gently growled, getting angrier and angrier.

“As for me, I’ve been passed around from pony to pony across my new 'life.' Celestia first put me in the royal gallery for others to admire, just like she did with Discord’s statue in her garden. I mean, really? Using your enemies sealed away forms as art decorations? Do you really need any more proof of how callous she is? It’s to further humiliate and rub in their loss.

“I was stolen by a daring thief, and then to this pony or that pony. Sometimes I’d be stolen, sometimes hung up as art, but hardly any wanted to wear me as jewelry. After all, who’d want to go around in public with something stolen from the ruler of the continent? Legends of how dangerous it was to have and Celestia trying hard to get it back meant others were too wary of me to keep me for long.

“Finally, I was sold to an out of the way curio shop, where a bitter stage magician picked me up for the sake of revenge against a pony she felt had slighted her. A pony you know well: Twilight Sparkle. The magicians name was Trixie.”

Sunset got a thoughtful look on her face. “Twilight told me about her.”

“She had a very petty mindset, very arrogant with delusions of grandeur. Since she actually had no fear of wearing me I decided to share my power with her, as otherwise she would have thrown me away. I hoped that I could temper her obnoxiousness and have her focus on the real issues plaguing Equestria, but she would not be dissuaded.”

It let out a sigh. “She was so childish and immature with my power that it was sad. She wound up being fooled by the same stage tricks she herself used in her magic shows, and she took me off, where I was taken and hidden away.

“And now YOU have found me... a pony infinitely more mature, already bearing a grudge against the princess, and who wants to use their power for the right reasons. You’re a dream come true.

“If you give me your vow to aid me in my bid to overthrow Celestia then all my magic will be at your disposal. And if, at the end of it all, you help to bring her down, then I shall teach you my greatest spell: I will grant you… alicornhood.”

Sunset’s expression glazed over, tears coming down her eyes. Once more the image of her as a queen with everyone cheering her on came to her. “W-why don’t you do it now?” she asked distractedly.

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, Sunset. You’re an exemplary pony for sure, but I trusted Celestia and look where it got me. I don’t want to be betrayed again. I want to see you’re serious first before I grant you such an upgrade.

“The tyrant Celestia overthrown; Equestria entering a true era of peace; the entire pony community’s love for your benevolent rule as you ascend to alicornhood and take the throne… isn’t that the kindest and most righteous thing to do? Isn’t that worth fighting for? Isn’t that worth risking your life for?

“We all tried to rise too high. Luna and me, we were punished for Celestia’s petty worries; for the sole 'crime' of simply wanting… just a little bit more. Just… like… you.”

Sunset had a very ugly look on her face, her eyes narrowed and her mouth a thin line. Her fear had long since passed, and her tears had stopped. Now all there was left was her anger from the past.

She took in a deep breath. “Celestia has harmed and endangered far too many ponies. If no one else is willing or able to stop her reign then that duty falls on me. I WILL stop her. She’s gone too far for far too long. It’s time for her reign of terror to end.”

“Wonderful!” the spirit responded joyfully.

Sunset’s green eyes began to turn red as the jewel in the Amulet glowed its brightest yet.

Chapter 7: Great power

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“Celestia is going down!” Sunset said sharply, “For me, and for all the ponies lives she endangered.”

“That’s the spirit!” said the Alicorn Amulet.

“Starswirl, I promise to avenge you and use your power for the betterment of others.”

“No, no, no,” he responded. “I must ask you not to call me Starswirl. I discarded that name long ago, but you wouldn’t have understood who I was if I didn’t say it. I certainly don’t want Celestia’s false 'honor' that she named a section of the Canterlot library for.”

“Oh, okay,” Sunset replied, shrugging. “Well, what should I call you then?”

“Call me Stardust Flare.”

“Well, it’s similar enough. I don’t think I’ll forget it.”

“There’s just one last thing to do before Celestia arrives tomorrow.”

"What’s that?” asked Sunset. “I’ll do whatever it takes to make her pay for everything she’s done.”

“Fighting two alicorns at once is a bit much, even for me. And so… you must KILL Twilight Sparkle!”

“WHAT?” Sunset said, her voice cracking. Her anger immediately lessened, replaced by fear.

“No!” she said firmly. “Absolutely not! She saved me from myself, and she offered to be my friend when everyone else wasn’t willing to give me a chance. She showed me to friends I could trust that have brought so much joy and happiness to my life. Kill Twilight? She hasn’t done anything wrong.” Her face scrunched up, an eye closing. “I can’t. I won’t!”

‘Shoot!’ Stardust thought, feeling the huge shift in her emotions. ‘I got too excited and moved too fast. She’s fighting my control. I have to do something quick before I lose her.’ After musing for a few seconds he got an idea. ‘Ah! That will do it. Sunset needs to see me as an ally. I can’t take back what I just said, so why not push forward?’

To Sunset he said in a stern voice, “So what then? Will you do nothing and allow Celestia to get away with her crimes?”

“Didn’t I just get finished telling you before I don’t want things to be the way they were in the past? Celestia is my only target. I don’t want there to be any peripheral victims.”

“And I told YOU that Twilight is being controlled by Celestia and that she has no sense of self anymore but what Celestia wants. Would you want to live a life like that? If you leave Twilight alone and try to fight Celestia then Twilight will join in, obviously. Do you think you can fight two alicorns simultaneously, and avoid harming Twilight at all? She must be taken care of before Celestia arrives, or this will come to nothing! Don’t you get that?”

“I DON’T CARE!” Sunset shouted. The glow from the jewel grew steadily dimmer. “Twilight means more to me than anything. I won’t betray her, not even if it makes fighting Celestia harder. Magic fades when the user is unconscious or dead. If I can just kill Celestia Twilight should be freed from her control.”

“And do you really think you have that capacity? You’re not going to ruin everything. I’ve been waiting for far too long for a suitable host to help me get my revenge on Celestia, and you’re not going to screw this up by taking such an enormous risk. I’m stronger than you. If I have to I can just take over your body and force you to do what is necessary, whether you like it or not.”

“Just try it!” Sunset said angrily as she felt that same cold dread when she had first picked up the Amulet. “I won’t let you have my body. I put on this amulet to PROTECT my friends! I won’t use it to hurt them!”

“So that’s your final answer?” he replied, rage filling his voice. “You’re that determined, are you? You won’t attack Twilight no matter what? Even if it means not having my power?”

Sunset could see the Amulet wasn’t what she thought it was. She lifted her hoof to take it off but halfway there it halted. She could feel odd sensations going through her body, and especially in her hoof. It was hard to explain how it felt. It was like a weight on her soul, like what she was inside was slowly being supplanted, like an intruder in her mind chipping away at what made her who she was.

She gritted her teeth, trying to lift her hoof to the amulet but her own body was fighting her. “I… won’t… let… you… control… me! I won’t… hurt… Twilight!” Her face was bright red and sweat was pouring down her face with her exertion, but her hoof was slowly reaching upward, despite the Amulet’s attempts to stop her. “Twilight… is… my… hero!”

The spirit let out a relieved sigh. “Thank goodness.”

The pressure on Sunset suddenly faded, and she felt it retreat from her. Her body was in her control again, but she was too surprised by his abrupt withdrawal to remove the amulet now that she had free reign again. “Thank goodness?” she repeated, panting slightly.

“Forgive me, Sunset, for putting you through that, but I had to know. I had to know which way you’d choose. This kind of power is awe-inspiring, and in the wrong hooves could lead to disaster. I was betrayed by someone I thought was a friend. How could I lend my power to a pony that would do the same? How could I give incredible powers to another, only to have them turn out to be another Celestia?”

Sunset blinked, still panting a little. “You mean that was just a test?”

“Yes. Your loyalty to your friends is impressive. The truth is that I can’t truly make you do anything. Even if I take over your body you’d only allow me to do the things that you would do anyway. If I tried to force you to do something that conflicted with your values then your will would reassert itself.”

In an encouraging voice he continued, “You should be proud of yourself, Sunset Shimmer. Your big fear was what you would do with tremendous power. Your strong convictions wouldn’t allow you to sacrifice those you care about simply for power and status. If your friends meant nothing to you then I would easily have been able to control you, but you fought to your utmost to protect them. And isn’t that what you sought out to prove when you returned here?”

Sunset looked around the clearing, not really seeing it. “I… I did. I… I have changed. I did my best to help out those I care for.” She smiled, her heart feeling light, a few tears coming down her eyes.

“I’m relieved. After being betrayed by Celestia I didn’t think I could ever trust anyone again. I’m convinced now that you are the pony I’ve been waiting for, the one who will help my dreams come true. Once you take care of Celestia I’d be honored to continue lending you my power, even after I help you become an alicorn. Now that you’ve shown you can resist the lure of power for selfish motives I believe you can handle that immense power.”

Sunset’s smile faded. “Celestia…” Her bright mood and the joy of success washed away. “Do I really have to kill her? Can’t I just lock her away somewhere?”

Stardust quietly growled, thinking, ‘In order to maintain my good standing with her I had to act as a friend. Even if it was necessary now her anger has diminished, so her higher thought processes are coming back, and her natural reluctance to disturb the harmony of things is returning.

‘Hmm. I think it’s best for now to back off. It’s not Celestia that I have to work on. That test just now confirmed it. It’s her bond with her friends that is making it hard to sway her to my side. Priorities, though. I need her to trust me and see me as just as good a friend as the rest of them.’

“Sunset, you’ve seen what’s happened to all of Celestia’s enemies that she simply locked away. They’ve returned, hundreds of years later, causing pain and suffering for others. However, if we can just find a way to remove Celestia’s power then there may be a chance. And then maybe Twilight will be freed too. We could get through this with no one dying. That would be wonderful.”

Sunset wore a sad smile. “Yeah, that would be great.”

“Anyway, let’s worry about the details later. You’ve proven yourself to me, so now I will teach you the prototype spell for alicorn transformation.”

That caught Sunset’s attention. “Prototype spell?”

“Yes. When a pony is transformed into an alicorn it causes a dramatic shift in that pony. They gain a pair of wings and their body’s capacity for generating magic increases massively. This spell was my early attempt at becoming an alicorn. You’ll be granted a pair of wings. However, all it will do will allow you the power of flight. It won’t increase your magic capacity. You’ll still have to rely on me for that for now.”

“I understand,” Sunset replied, nodding.

“Very well. Relax your consciousness.”

Sunset felt him intruding into her mind again. However, it didn’t feel nearly as unpleasant as before. For a few seconds she fought, but her curiosity got the better of her, and she allowed him in. She reasoned that she could fight him off again if he tried to do anything suspect.

She sat down, putting her hooves together. It was odd seeing her body moving without her doing it, like she was just a spectator looking through the eyes of another.

Her horn began to glow a bright dark red. In the air in front of her an outline of a pencil began drawing. It quickly sketched a pair of wings before a paint bucket appeared, splashing them with her color. The wings came toward her, and she felt a weight on her back.

He withdrew from her mind, saying, “Well? What do you think?”

Sunset looked behind her, seeing her new wings. Her eyes lit up. “Oh, wow! This is so awesome!” She went to the small watering hole and looked at her reflection. “I really look like an alicorn now.” She flapped them a few times. They looked just slightly off.

“I can sense your confusion. What you’re seeing, Sunset, are not true wings. They’re basically solidified energy. They’ll act like real wings, but they’re not quite the same. Pegasi magic naturally allow for flight. However, it usually takes a lot of practice to become proficient. These wings, since they run on a different mechanic, should present you little difficulty. You have to use your will to control them, as they’re not truly a part of your body the way wings are to a pegasus.”

Sunset looked behind her again, concentrating. She began to flap her wings hard, willing herself to leave the ground. It took a few seconds until she mustered up the necessary force to defy gravity and lift herself up.

“Whoa!” Sunset exclaimed, hovering a few feet off the air. She began experimenting, going in a circle a few times. She was surprised at how easy it came to her. Once she became comfortable she flew up higher. She was planning to soar as high as she could, but just before she cleared the tree tops she felt her body stop as the spirit took control of her. “W-what are you doing?” she complained.

“Use your head, you fool. You don’t want to be spotted in the open air. You don’t have wings, remember? Anyone could see you and notice you, and then the game will be up. I don’t care if you practice. Have fun with it, but you mustn’t be seen.” He withdrew from her.

“Spoilsport,” she said under her breath, but she couldn’t stay mad as she continued experimenting with her new wings. She flew around in fast circles, causing a small tornado. She did flips and twirls and spins. She couldn’t test her straight line speed since she wasn’t allowed to clear the tree tops to use the open air. However, she had fun swerving around trees.

When she began to get a little tired she landed on the ground, wiping her face. “Phew! That was intense. I think I’m actually feeling a little jealous of pegasi. They get to have so much fun.

“I’m surprised.” She looked behind her, giving her wings a few flaps. “I know you said it would be different for me, but it comes so naturally to me it felt like I was always meant to be a pegasus.”

“Or an alicorn?” added in the spirit slyly.

Sunset giggled. “Maybe.”

“Those are enchanted wings, designed to bring out the maximum capabilities of the user. As a unicorn and a bit old at the time of my sealing I didn’t want to get my wings only to be crashing around into everything. Since they don’t have all the bones and skin and hinges that true wings have they can change position as needed to better catch the wind and thus keep you airborne. They’re also designed to flap perfectly in sync, another cause of crashes in new fliers. Finally, they have a built-in anti-crash charm. If you get hit and are stunned while in the air they will automatically flap to keep you from smashing into the ground. Of course if you’re knocked unconscious by an attack it will only stop the crash. It can’t protect you from anything else.”

“This is absolutely amazing!” She hopped around a little, giggling like a filly. “I really have wings! I’m one step closer to my ultimate dream.”

“Yes, you are. Listen, Sunset. It’s late, and that zebra will be wondering where you’ve gotten off to if you don’t hurry up. You can practice magic in the morning. And speaking of…”

He entered her again. She didn’t fight him. There was a flash from her horn, then a sound like breaking glass. The weight on her back vanished, and she quickly looked behind her to see her wings dissolving into pieces and falling to the ground before vanishing. “HEY!” she complained. “What did you do that for?”

“Use your head, girl. You don’t have wings. How many times do I have to tell you that? That zebra will find it odd that you somehow went from a unicorn to an alicorn over the course of an hour. You won’t be flying while you’re sleeping anyway. Once we leave in the morning I’ll give them back. Don’t worry so much. We’re friends, remember?”

Sunset frowned. “Yeah, I guess so.”

“Oh, stop moping. You won’t betray your friends, so I won’t betray you either. I don’t know if you know this, but this amulet was enchanted so only its user can take it off. I wouldn’t lend you my power if you didn’t earn my trust.”

Sunset just shrugged, looking longingly behind her.

The spirit lightly sighed. “You’re a pain, you know that? Buuuuut… I can’t say I don’t understand your feelings. I too longed for alicornhood and had it torn away from me. Damn Celestia!”

He sighed again. “Very well. I’ll let you play for a little longer, but then you have to go back. We don’t want the zebra to come looking and see you.”

Sunset gasped, her body twitching as power seeped into her being. It was mind-blowing. A bright glow came from her horn. She had to release it, or she thought she’d break in two. She focused it ahead of her, seeing magic far greater than she had ever mustered before shoot from her horn.

It shot forward, obliterating a number of trees in its path before it came to a stop as the spirit took control of her again and severed the flow of magic.

Sunset just stood there, shock on her face, panting just a little. It had to have destroyed almost fifty trees. “Whoa,” she said in a subdued voice, far detached from her actual feelings. She had actually felt it. POWER! True power. Power that eclipsed anything she had seen by anyone other than the princess or the Elements of Harmony. And that was only supposed to be a sample, allowing her to “play around.” If she could harness its full power, along with a true alicorn upgrade… nothing would ever be able to stand in her way again. She would always be able to protect her friends, no matter the danger.

Sunset was shaking, both intrigued and frightened at what she could accomplish with that level of power. “So much power,” she said, her expression vacant. “So… much… power.”

Once again the glow from the jewel began to increase. The spirit gently laughed to itself. ‘There we go. She’s starting to grow obsessed with power like before, disguising it underneath the desire to use it to protect others.’

To Sunset he said, “You need to learn to focus. In order to be compatible with my power you have to trust me more. I lent you my power as a gesture of good faith so you could experiment a little before we returned. However, you resisted that energy, and it flowed in the opposite direction of your natural flow, making you feel like you were being crushed by it, and you threw it off, carelessly firing it. In order for you to use my energy properly you must flow in the same rhythm as it, like an extension of yourself.

“We can deal with that in the morning, though. For now, move over.”

He took control of her body again, her horn glowing bright as before her eyes the trees reassembled themselves like time was going backwards, but only for those specific objects.

Once the trees were back he left her body, Sunset once more just standing there enraptured by the kind of power at her disposal.

“You remember how I was testing you and telling you to kill Twilight? How did it feel when I was trying to control you?”

“Yucky,” Sunset responded, shaking her head at what she just saw. “Like bugs and worms crawling around in my body.”

“And now it doesn’t, right? Because our goals are merging, thus you’re allowing me in because you’re choosing so. This latest time you already have come to recognize my touch and are coming to trust me with your body, so you don’t fight. That’s a good start, but for you to really manage my power we need even better unity. The same way that you let me into your body you need to trust in my power and believe that it won’t destroy you.

“When I transfer energy over to you than you have to WANT that power. You have to WANT to use it. Otherwise, your body will reject it, just like it did before. I suppose it was to be expected, maybe. After all, you probably assumed from my words I was going to give the wings back. I didn’t explain that I was going to allow you to experiment with my magic.

“You showed before that you can resist the lure of power if it would endanger the innocent or your friends. Thus, you have no need to be afraid of wanting power. Wanting the strength to protect those you care about is a beautiful and noble thing, so there’s really no reason you should reject my power, is there?”

“There shouldn’t be…” Sunset walked over to the pond, looking down at her reflection, seeing a scared pony looking back at her. “I… I don’t know if I can trust myself with that level of power. I do want to use it to protect my friends, but…” Her reflection seemed to change from her pony self to the demon she became when she put on the Element of Magic. “What if I can’t control it? What if I go crazy like before? I could lose myself and become power obsessed and that could lead me to hurting those I love.” A tear dripped down into the pond, sending ripples through the water. “I wouldn’t be able to stand it if that happened.”

“Sunset,” Stardust said in a concerned voice, “do you trust me?”

It took her a while to respond. “Yes,” she finally said.

“Don’t be afraid, Sunset Shimmer. I am here to help you. I am stronger than you. I’m not saying that to brag. It’s just a fact. And just as I can’t force you to do anything you won’t do, the same holds true in reverse. You can’t make me do what I don’t want to do. My power is only at your disposal so long as I will it to be that way. So if you become obsessed with power and try to use it to subjugate others in a cruel way, or become reckless and begin attacking ponies at random, then I will cut off my support and leave you only with your modest unicorn powers, and the likes of the princesses and the Elements will easily be able to handle you then.

“Don’t worry so much. I consider you a friend. I won’t allow you to lose yourself. I’ll help keep you on the right path so you don’t wind up like Celestia. Alright?”

Sunset shivered slightly, wiping her face as she cried. She got a sudden mental image of a stallion giving her the same kind of warm, encouraging smiles she got from her other friends. She nodded, saying, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Sunset.”

“Would you like to give it one more try before we head back?”

Sunset looked around uncertainly. “Well… I guess so. If I can’t handle this power I’ll never be able to subdue Celestia, and then we’ll both be sunk.”

Sunset leaned back on her back legs so she was straight, closing her eyes as she began a steady breathing pattern. She thought of all her friends, and her fantasy before of teaming up with Twilight to take down a monster. “I can do this. I have to… for their sake.”

“Are you ready?” Stardust asked.

Sunset gave a quick nod, tensing her body in preparation. Her body twitched as she felt energy begin to flow within her again. Just like when he took over her consciousness it didn’t feel so scary or oppressive the second time around. She kept her eyes closed, trying to rid herself of the feeling of instability in her veins. ‘Wanting power for the right reasons is not a crime,’ she thought to herself.

For a few minutes she remained still, getting used to the increase in power until it began to feel more natural. She opened her eyes, a calm expression on her face as she lifted a hoof and pointed at a tree. A narrow beam came out of her horn, hitting the tree. Before her eyes the tree began shrinking until it was only a sapling.

“Very good, Sunset,” Stardust said, pride in his voice. “You were able to channel and control my power without being overtaken by it.”

Sunset let out a relieved breath, wiping her face of a bead of sweat, beaming from ear to ear. “That was awesome, Stardust! I really did it! I’m learning fast. Soon…” Her gaze grew distant as she envisioned herself on the throne again. She lifted a hoof, looking down at it as she clenched it. “Soon no one will be able to stand in my way.”

There was a flash of the gem, and Stardust giggled to himself like before, thinking, ‘Don’t you want to add to that, Sunset? Something about protecting your friends with that power, not just 'no one being able to stand in your way?'’

“Stardust?” said Sunset, pulling him away from his thoughts.

“Yes?” he replied.

“This is going to sound odd, but I just can’t picture you as Starswirl the Bearded.”

“So you’re calling me a liar?” he responded, an edge in his voice.

“No, no.” She shook her head. “It’s not that. I believe you are who you say. I guess maybe it’s because I’m calling you by a different name but I just can’t picture you being that old. When I try to match your voice to a face I see someone about my age.” Sunset shook her head again, gently laughing to herself. “Oh, forget it. Just ignore me. It’s been a crazy day. I barely know what I’m saying anymore.”

She sighed, wearing a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I’d like to stay out here and practice all night, but I know that’s not in the cards. Zecora knows the Everfree Forest well, and she’d definitely come to look for me after Twilight told her I’d be staying the night.”

She let out a deeper sigh, and now her smile left too. “Well… I guess… I’ll see you in the morning.” She lifted her hoof to the amulet, pulling at it.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Stardust said, sounding panicked. “What are you doing, Sunset?”

Sunset halted her actions, still holding it slightly away from her body. “You’re the one who got mad at me before for almost blowing my cover with my new wings. I can’t just go into Zecora’s wearing the Alicorn Amulet or she’ll know that I took it. I have to be discreet, right? In the morning we can-”

“No!” he said strongly. “You can’t!”

Sunset looked down at it oddly. “Why are you getting so worked up? It’s not like I’m abandoning you or anything.”

“If you set me down or leave me in a saddlebag or something there’s a chance that I can be stolen or hidden away by someone else. So long as you wear me I can’t be taken away from you. Only together are we at our strongest. Isn’t that the very nature of friendship?”

“Yes, of course, but I still don’t get why you’re so afraid.”

“Sunset,” he said in a strained voice, “I’ve been locked away, fully conscious, for hundreds of years, and no one was eager to keep me for long. You’re the first host I’ve had in over three years. I don’t want to be separated from you. I’m scared that I’m going to lose you if we’re apart. You can’t understand how terrible an existence this is. I’ve been alone for so long. Even if it is just for a night I don’t want to experience that loneliness of solitude for even one more hour when I’ve finally found a friend who shares my values.

“Please,” he begged, sounding on the verge of tears. “I… I don’t want to go back to that cold and lonely place.”

Sunset began to cry herself, his words sounding just like hers. She knew that feeling well. The time she spent in the human world, when she was forced to rely on herself and her own wits, was almost pitch-black, so much so that only the pursuit of knowledge helped to hold off despair.

“I’m sorry,” Sunset said emotionally, wiping her face, but more tears just came pouring down. “I’m sorry you’ve had to go through so much torment.” A strong flash went through the jewel as Sunset’s face narrowed in anger. “Cursed Celestia. So much pain and misfortune, AND FOR WHAT?” She shook in anger. “We should be able to live our lives freely, without being afraid of becoming just a little too much of an inconvenience. It’s not right!” She flashed back to her own past, seeing a kindred spirit, someone who could understand her past. That was why he felt safe opening up to her.

“Calm yourself, Sunset,” he responded gently. “Now is not the time to lose your head. Leave those feelings for tomorrow.”

Sunset felt her anger fading as her thoughts became consumed with pity for Stardust. “I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, but maybe when all this is over and I become an alicorn I could… release you from your prison. If I can just destroy the Alicorn Amulet… you wouldn’t have to suffer anymore, unable to do anything but watch unless someone is wearing you.”

“Oh, Sunset,” he responded gratefully, “you are truly a wonderful child, but I must endure. Who else can educate you and advise you and teach you about the things you need to know as queen? Who else can offer their aid in power should an overwhelmingly powerful force come to call? It’s a sad life being trapped in here, but being able to watch you grow into your best self makes it all worthwhile. Being able to have a host who truly understands me already makes this existence bearable. I don’t feel so lonely as I did before, just from having a single friend.”

Sunset knew that feeling well, thinking of Twilight. With a teary smile she nodded, saying, “Yep!” She got a thoughtful look on her face. “Okay, so I guess I’ll just have to wear my cloak to bed or something.”

With a flash from her horn she summoned her brown traveling cloak, leaving the hood down, and walked back toward Zecora’s house.

When she arrived she saw Zecora walking around the outside, looking for something. It was probably her. “Hey, Zecora!” she called out.

When the zebra saw her she ran over. “Oh, thank goodness you are alright. You gave me such a fright.”

“I’m… I’m fine.”

“Off in the distance I heard something explode. I immediately went into defense mode. I ran back home to check if you were okay. I saw no sign of you, and didn’t know what to say.”

Sunset flushed, remembering her blowing up a bunch of trees when she lost control of the Amulet’s magic. ‘I guess I shouldn’t be surprised she heard it,’ she thought.

“Um… that was me,” she said out loud, awkwardly rubbing her head. “I, um, decided to go for a walk and ran into one of the freaky monsters in the forest. I was so startled I just got a little carried away trying to stop it.”

Zecora gave her a funny look. “I suppose that is a relief. I was shaking like a leaf. Such a commotion in this forest I’ve never heard. My fears of attack have turned out to be absurd.”

Sunset saw that Zecora believed her tale, and her heart began to settle down. She yawned. “Uh, listen, I don’t want to go outside again in the dark so I think I’m just gonna hit the hay. I repaired all the broken stuff as best I could, and I’m sorry for the accident before.”

Zecora smiled at her. “Apology accepted. My tower of respect has been once again erected.”

She went inside her hut and made a makeshift bed for Sunset to use. Once it was finished Sunset bowed her head and said, “Thank you, Zecora.”

She gave a quick nod as she took one of the blankets off her bed and placed it on Sunset’s. “I wish you a healthy rest. A good night’s sleep is always for the best.”

Sunset lay down in her bed as Zecora got into hers. As she got comfortable she let out a troubled breath of the stress that had been building up at different points of the day, especially what awaited her the next day.

She kept tossing and turning, unable to find rest. ‘Is this really the right thing to do?’ she thought heavily. She pictured herself engaging in a magic battle with Celestia.

Stardust spoke to her. “Sunset, are you having doubts again?”

‘Of course I am!’ she thought angrily. ‘Why shouldn’t I?’

“We went over this already. This is for the good of the kingdom. But I’m not going to go over it again right now. When the morning comes you will have to decide whether you’re going to go through with this or not. Don’t exhaust yourself by dwelling on things all night. I just want to see you happy. If you don’t want to do it then I can do nothing to make you.”

Sunset found herself thinking once again of being a true alicorn, of seeing the crowds of ponies bowing in respect and love, cheering her very existence, and a few warm tears came down her face. ‘I don’t know. I just can’t decide right now.’

Her stomach suddenly jolted as she realized something. ‘If… if I do this and everything turns out the way you said it means that I would have to leave my friends in the human world behind. If I rule over Equestria I can’t go back.’

“I already told you I’m asking a lot of you, Sunset, but a ruler must be willing to sacrifice their own wants and needs for the good of their subjects. Once you ascend and become the leader we can work together to undo the damage Celestia has caused and make sure we raise good, kind-hearted ponies with unselfish motives just like us to be the leaders after us. Your friends let you leave with their blessing, understanding that you may decide to stay. If they heard you became a queen and need to be around to rule Equestria then they’d surely understand why you can only visit for three days at a time.”

Sunset turned onto her side, holding her stomach. ‘I can’t think about this right now. I need to sleep.’

“I understand. Be strong, Sunset.” With that he withdrew from her.

Sunset found herself torn again between the two worlds and her two sets of friends. She could always just forget about Equestria and go back to the human world. But if she did that what would happen to Equestria? It would continue to be ruled over by Celestia. Was that really her concern? She thought of Twilight, and she knew the answer was yes.

Twilight pursued her mainly to get the crown with the Element of Magic back, but when she, Sunset, threatened to smash the portal to get Twilight to hand it over she refused. Though it wasn’t her own world she was willing to stay trapped in it for the rest of her life to protect it from being taken over.

Painful as it may be she owed a duty to Equestria to see it safe, if she had the capacity to. She would be doing Twilight a disservice as a friend if she refused to follow her example, as well as let her be used by Celestia.

She hardened her heart. ‘This is the way it has to be. I respect Twilight too much to just let things run their course.’

She let out a heavy breath. Just knowing it was right didn’t make it easy, though it did settle her racing mind and she gradually fell into sleep.

As Sunset began to lightly snore the Alicorn Amulet gently glowed. ‘Finally!’ Stardust thought. ‘Ordinarily it takes a few weeks to properly control a respective host, but I don’t have time for that. If she had taken me off before I would have to start this whole seduction process all over again. I have to overwhelm her mental defenses by tomorrow morning so she’ll do whatever I want, and the fact that she’s going to be dreaming is just perfect. I don’t need to convince her that what she’s seeing is real. I only need to stir her fears into a frenzy and create enough doubt in her friends that she’ll turn to me for relief.’

Stardust gently laughed to himself. ‘The Elements of Harmony are powerful, yes, but not invincible. If they purged the darkness from your heart then I’ll just have to create new darkness to take its place.’

Chapter 8: Nightmare visions

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Sunset was fast asleep.

Stardust knew it was time to get to work. He concentrated his power, and a small aura appeared around Sunset. “That should keep out the troublesome dream-walker. I don’t want there to be any interruptions, especially from an alicorn.

“Now then,” he muttered, the jewel in the amulet glowing, “Let’s see what we’re working with here.”

Concentrating his essence he pushed himself into her dreams, sinking into the darkness like water until he saw a large sphere containing her dream world.

Turning into mist he phased through the sphere before adopting a shadowy form, like a pony outline. His body flowed like a flame, much like the Royal Sisters manes.

“Ah, Sunset,” he said as he spotted her, “you’re going to entertain me greatly before the night is out. Once we get rid of the princesses there will be no one who can stand in my way. By the time you get that far you will have lost yourself to the darkness, and will be my obedient puppet.”

He lifted a hoof, and the space they were in melted, to be replaced with the halls of Canterlot High School.

Sunset looked around. She had just been a pony, dreaming of the party at Sugarcube Corner and the delicious treats she had eaten. Now she was human again, casually walking down the currently empty hall, until she heard voices.

“It’s only been one day, huh?” said a female voice.

There was a heavy sigh. “Two more to go until we know for sure.”

Sunset mused, “That sounds like… Rarity and Applejack?”

She turned the corner, and saw the human versions of her friends.

Fluttershy was clutching Angel Bunny, a nervous expression on her face. “What do you think is gonna happen over there?”

“I have no clue,” said Rainbow. “It will either go great or it’ll go horribly. We did all we could.”

Sunset jogged over to them. “Hey, guys! What are you doing here? Or I guess it’s more accurate to ask what I’m doing here?”

None of them responded to her or even cast a glance in her direction. They just continued on as if she wasn’t there.

Pinkie crossed her arms, her hair a little flat. “Well, it was a colossal waste of all our time, if you ask me. We all knew what was going to happen.”

“Hey! Guys!” Sunset said louder. She tried to put a hand on Applejack but it slipped right through her body. She dropped her hand in confusion. “What was a waste of time?” she asked quietly.

Pinkie’s next words answered that. “We all knew that Sunset was irredeemable from the start.”

Sunset gasped, her eyes widening. “W-what?” Her insides went cold. “W-what did you say?”

Rarity ran a hand through her hair. “Honestly! I can think of a million better things I could have been doing than keeping an eye on that troublemaker.” She let out a huff. “Two and a half years!”

“Hmph!” Applejack leaned back against a locker, her arms crossed. “We only did it fer Twilight’s sake. All of us used to be friends before Sunset came and started ruining everything between us. Shoot, if it hadn’t been fer Twilight we’d all still hate one another.”

“What?” said Rainbow. “She thought a simple sorry and a little community service just wiped the slate clean? What is she, stupid? You don’t try to take over the world and then cry victim when you’re brought down by someone stronger.”

Sunset’s insides were like ice. She backed up a few steps, her eyes starting to tear up. Was that what they all really thought of her?

“It happened just like Twilight said it would,” said Fluttershy, looking around furtively. Fluttershy’s eyes met hers for a moment, full of spite and distrust. “She was just biding her time all these years, waiting for her next attempt to sneak back into the pony world and try again.” She shivered. “She gives me the creeps.”

“N-no!” Sunset cried out, hiccupping breaths in. “That wasn’t why! T-that wasn’t why at all!”

Applejack shrugged. “Well, it don’t matter none now. Sunset’s finished, and good riddance.”

Pinkie laughed darkly. “Does she really think all of us are that dumb? Twilight already knows she’s gonna put on a goodie two shoes act and pretend to be all ‘reformed’ to try to get into her good books.”

A tear came down Sunset’s eye. “H-how… how could you say that? How could you believe that, after all we’ve been through together?”

“Yes, darling, but it’s gonna work the opposite way too,” said Rarity. “Twilight’s gonna do the same to get her trust, and when they stand in front of Princess Celestia the two of them will overpower her and throw her in the deepest dungeon possible.” She flipped her hair dismissively. “Then she’ll be out of our hair for good.”

Sunset blinked, sinking to the ground. “No! No! It… it can’t be true. I… I won’t believe it! I… I won’t!” Moisture began leaking onto Sunset’s hands from her tears. “We’re friends!” She lifted her head, tears streaming down her eyes. “We’ve been through so much together. You can’t… you can’t really mean that!”

“Hmph!” Rainbow shrugged. “Whatever. It’s not our problem anymore. Let’s go.”

All of them turned in her direction, their gaze cold. It was the same glare she had endured for so long from everyone else, but not from them.

They all filed past her, leaving her alone.

Sunset trembled on the ground, echoes of the past coming back to her.

“Oh, look, it’s HER!”

“Get away, freak!”

“I don’t know what those five see in you.”

“You should have been arrested, but you probably would have blown up the prison too.”

Endless voices echoed in the dreamscape, every negative thing she had heard since meeting Twilight.

She clenched her stomach, her forehead against the ground. “But… b-b-but I’ve changed,” she said quietly. “I’m different now.”

She began sobbing, terrified of looking up or opening her eyes, sure she’d see the faces to go along with the voices.

The voices suddenly stopped, and now she heard a new voice. “That was scary.” It was Apple Bloom.

Sunset glanced up. She was a pony again. It was dark but for the light of the moon shining upon them. They were outside Twilight’s house.

Applejack was right next to her, and gave her a protective nuzzle. “Don’t worry, Sugarcube. It’s alright.”

“What now?” Sunset asked, her heart still aching. “Though… I have a feeling I already know.”

“Oh, come on, Apple Bloom!” Scootaloo said excitedly. “Wasn’t that fun? We all got to show off how brave we are.”

“That’s the spirit, squirt!” Rainbow said, patting Scootaloo’s head. “I was there, so you had nothing to worry about.”

“I guess… this is after the party,” Sunset said blankly.

“Speak for yourself, Scootaloo!” said Sweetie Belle, shivering as she hugged Rarity. “That was horrifying.”

“Never you mind, Sweetie Belle,” said Rarity. “It’s over now.”

Fluttershy popped up from a bush, trembling. “C-can one of you walk me home? I don’t feel safe going by myself. S-She might come after me.”

Pinkie rushed to her side, hugging her. “Aw, don’t you worry your pretty little head, Fluttershy. Auntie Pinkie will protect you from that mean old Sunset.”

The eight of them dispersed, and once more Sunset was left alone.

“I guess… it doesn’t really matter what I do,” said Sunset, a numb feeling in her body. “Nothing’s going to change. Both here and there, I can see their true feelings about me. They don’t trust me. They never did.

“All this time, they were just playing me, assuming I was doing the same to them. Now I’m a goner, right?”

Her shadow elongated, taking on the appearance of her demon form. “Is that all anyone can see of me? I was terrified of being locked up, because it meant I’d be taken away from my friends. But…” Her eyes clenched shut. “But… does it even matter if they don’t care about me?”

She fell to the ground, slamming her hooves against the ground. “WHY… WHY… WHY… WHY… WHY?” She punctuated each ‘why’ with a slam. “Why won’t anyone believe me? Haven’t I done enough?”

Her anger diminished as her world dissolved again, and now she was in a long hallway. She recognized it instantly as Celestia’s throne room.

“You wanted to see me, Princess?”

It was Twilight. The voice that answered back got her attention.

“Yes, Twilight,” said Princess Celestia. “Come, come.”

Sunset quickly looked up. It was dark, but the moon provided decent lighting. Like before neither of the two seemed to notice her. Sunset stood up, looking around. “Are these… visions I’m seeing?” she wondered aloud. “Am I seeing the future… or the present?” She had never had this kind of power before.

Twilight walked up to the throne. “What is it, Princess? Why did you call me here so late at night?”

Celestia was mostly covered in shadow, though her eyes seemed to be glowing. Her expression was stern. “Is it really true what you said? Sunset has returned to this realm?”

“Yes, Princess. She has.”

“And?”

“Um… and… what? Your highness!” she quickly added.

Celestia rolled her eyes. She jumped off the throne, getting in Twilight’s face. “And WHAT?” she said sharply. “You know darn well WHAT! Have you earned her trust?”

“Princess…” Twilight looked down, and then said in a resigned voice, “I have.”

Sunset’s thoughts flashed back to what her human friends had said. It was certainly lining up. She closed her eyes, waiting. “I know what’s coming.”

“So you’re ready then? Tomorrow we take her down!”

Sunset took in a shuddering breath.

“Princess…” Twilight looked into her eyes for a moment, before looking back at the floor. “I… I don’t… think we should do this.”

Celestia’s eyebrow went up. “Oh?” was all she said.

“I talked with her last night, and she told me a bunch of things. And this morning she hung out with everyone. She showed her heart to all of us, and has done nothing untoward. I think she’s the real deal.

“She’s no longer a threat, so I think we should just leave her alone!”

Sunset blinked, her mouth slightly open. She put a hoof to her chest, smiling slightly. “Twilight,” she said warmly. At least one of them understood. At least Twilight was still willing to believe in her and give her a chance, just as she had in the past.

“We don’t need to do anything to her. We should just-GAH!”

Any warm feelings Sunset had disappeared as Celestia slapped Twilight across the face with her hoof.

“Do you think it matters how you feel?” Celestia said darkly. “You’re not the one in charge here.”

Twilight covered her face with her hoof, trembling slightly. “Forgive me, Princess. I meant no disrespect.”

“I’m sure you didn’t,” she responded dismissively. “I gave you your orders, now carry them out.”

Twilight’s face soured. “I’m an alicorn too, and so I have the right to not follow your commands.”

Celestia’s eyes went wide. “Excuse me?”

Putting her hoof down she faced Celestia defiantly. “Sunset Shimmer has more than earned her redemption, and as a fellow alicorn I won’t be party to a plan that would harm an innocent.

“Sunset… I’ve experienced her tears, her remorse, her sadness… I’ve seen it all.”

Sunset closed her eyes, tears coming down them. “T-Twilight! Thank you!”

“Hmph!” Celestia stood at her full height. “This won’t do at all.”

Sunset could hear danger in Celestia’s words. She opened her eyes to see what was gonna happen, hating that she was incapable of helping.

She gasped as Celestia charged Twilight, slamming her hoof into Twilight’s chest and flapping her wings to keep her momentum until she crashed Twilight into a pillar.

Twilight let out a wheezing gasp of breath, then a cry of pain as Celestia lifted her hoof until she flipped Twilight overhead and slammed her onto the ground.

“Twilight!” Sunset cried out in horror. She ran over to her friend, and tried to touch Twilight, but went right through. Twilight was gasping for breath, groaning in pain.

She growled in frustration, spinning on Celestia. “WHY?” she yelled, furious tears coming down her eyes. “She’s your student! She adores you! How could you treat her that way? What gives you the right?”

Of course she got no response.

Celestia’s horn glowed, and Twilight was lifted onto her hooves. “Tsk, tsk! I guess I’ve been giving you too much freedom, haven’t I?” She shook her head. “Actually thinking you could defy me, and go against my wishes?” A sinister smile came to her face. “I cannot allow that. You must always remain my faithful student.”

Twilight was shaking on her hooves, all the fight taken out of her. “W-why? Why are you…” Her eyes flickered.

“After all, it’s not like you have a real choice in the matter, is it, Twilight?” Her twisted grin grew wider. “I gave you a good degree of autonomy so you could act as my agent, but if you’re going to act against me I have no choice but to do something about it.

“Ordinarily such acts of treason would be worthy of banishment or imprisonment, but you’re my personal symbol of power. I need you to be around.” Her horn glowed golden, and Twilight began floating in the air.

Twilight put a hoof to her stomach, one eye closed. “Please… please stop!” She shivered. “I… I don’t want to… I don’t want to go through that… not again!”

Celestia let out a cruel laugh. “Oh, Twilight. If you didn’t want it to happen then you shouldn’t have spoken your mind so openly and just followed orders.” Celestia’s horn flashed brighter, and the magical aura Twilight was stuck in turned a cloudy white.

Sunset looked on in horror as Twilight screamed and writhed. She shivered in fear. “W-what is she doing to you?” She lifted her hoof helplessly, absolutely hating the powerlessness she felt.

The glow faded in intensity. Twilight slowly landed back on her hooves, looking no different on the outside. Her eyes were hollow and unfocused.

“Twilight!” Sunset called out, running the short distance over to her. “Are you alright?” Her body clenched as she stomped a hoof. “Ngh! She can’t hear me!”

Celestia walked towards them. The clacking of her hooves echoed.

Sunset’s eyes were narrowed in rage, wishing she could hug Twilight close. Twilight truly did believe in her, enough to defy her mentor. She glared at Celestia, a tear hovering at the corner of her eyes. She let out a huff as she saw Celestia’s expression was calm, almost motherly in appearance.

“You scum!” she spat out in a hiss.

“Twilight, my faithful student,” Celestia said, her voice jovial. “How are you?”

Twilight looked up slowly, her expression still vacant. “Good, Princess. I am ready to serve. Just tell me what to do and I will do it. I live to serve you. You always know best.” Her voice was completely emotionless.

“That’s right, Twilight. And what about… Sunset Shimmer?”

There was a slight hesitation, and then Twilight said, “She is a threat to the empire, and must be dealt with swiftly before she runs away again. She must face justice. Together the two of us will take her down.”

Celestia’s motherly grin turned to a smirk. “Now that’s the student I’m proud of!

“Return to Ponyville now and rest. When you awake you’ll be able to put on a convincing act to keep her busy until I arrive.”

“Yes, Princess.”

Twilight turned around and began walking toward the exit.

Sunset noticed a solitary tear coming down Twilight’s eye. Even now she wasn’t completely gone. Stardust had told her that Twilight had been stripped of her free will, but Twilight would be useless if she wasn’t given some capacity to make her own choices.

She had to guess that every few months Twilight was stripped of her sense of self when her ability to make her own choices grew enough that it led to her disagreeing with Celestia.

She was torn from her thoughts as she heard laughing. Celestia was back on her throne, guffawing as if she had just heard the best joke in the world.

Sunset’s eyes narrowed to slits, her legs apart in a battle-ready stance. Furious tears were streaming down her cheeks. “Laugh it up while you can! I swear I’m gonna make you pay for this!”

Chapter 9: Panic and distrust

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Sunset awoke, her thoughts vivid and keen. Her body was covered in sweat, matting her fur. She sat up, panting.

She held herself, shivering like a leaf. She didn’t know where she was or how she had got there. Was she still dreaming? Was she locked up in a dungeon somewhere?

She heard the wind whistling outside, and slowly became aware of the natural sounds of the forest.

Getting some measure of control over herself she lit up her horn. She had to put her hoof over her mouth to stifle a scream as she saw a giant face staring back at her. She quickly moved backwards on her hooves to get away, and wound up falling right off the bed onto the floor, landing on her back and bumping her head from the momentum.

She closed her eyes as she covered the back of her head with her hooves. She didn’t have time to be stunned. She was in grave danger. She was going to die!

She flipped over, preparing a blast from her horn. Her body suddenly froze, the glow from her horn fading away. What kind of powers did this thing have?

A voice echoed in her head. “Calm yourself, Sunset!”

Sunset recognized the voice, and her panting breath slowed down. ‘St-Stardust,’ she thought.

“Yes. Now look again.” Her horn glowed, and she saw the creepy face again. “Just a mask. That’s all.”

Sunset looked closely, and she could see that indeed it was a mask. She could still feel her heart beating a mile a minute.

She heard movement to her side, and she turned to see a curtain blocking her view. “Ah! W-who’s there?” she cried out, panting deeply.

“Why, it is Zecora, of course,” replied a sleepy voice, opening the curtain. Rubbing an eye she continued, “This fear you have, what is the source?”

“Z-Zecora,” Sunset replied. “R-right. I’m sorry I woke you.

“Listen, I need to go for a walk.”

“At this time of night it would not be wise. Outside, beasts of the forest are all that lies.”

Sunset gulped, trotting in place. “I thank you for your concern, but I really, really need to walk.” She went to the door, opening it. “Don’t worry about me.”

Before the zebra could respond she left, closing the door behind her. She walked in the direction of the river, scanning the dark forest for any sign of danger or movement.

“Sunset,” started Stardust. “What’s all this about?”

“Just leave me alone!” she whispered harshly, not wanting to draw anything to her.

“You’re acting strange. Should I not be concerned?”

“Concerned?” she said a little louder. “No! I think you probably want me locked up too!”

“Locked up… too? What does that mean?”

Sunset held a breath, her cheeks puffing out. She let it out after a few seconds. “Don’t give me that. You’re trying to tell me you don’t know? You knew everything else about me.”

“Hey, now. I admit I went through some of your memories when we first made contact, but that was simply for the sake of knowing who you really were. Now that we’re friends it would be rude to go through your thoughts and personal memories.”

“Friends…” She paused for a moment, her heart feeling heavy. After a couple of seconds she walked the last little bit until they reached the clearing where the river was.

“Come now, Sunset,” Stardust said, concern coloring his voice. “Tell me what’s wrong. You’re very jittery. Something must have happened while you were asleep.”

She walked up to the edge of the clear water. Her reflection felt unusually dark. “I… I’m all alone.”

“Pardon?” said Stardust.

“I had a nightmare, or a vision, or something in between.” She picked up a pebble, throwing it in and seeing the water ripple. “I’m feeling as torn apart and shattered as my reflection there.”

“You had a vision?” Sunset mused. “That would explain things. I could feel something drawing on my power while you slept, even though your horn wasn’t affecting anything in the area.”

Sunset’s body clenched, but she had to ask the question. “You said… you said before that you could keep up with what’s going on in Equestria through visions, did you not? You can see things far away from you?”

“Yes… that’s correct.”

“Do… do you think it’s possible… to see things in another world?”

“You mean, like the world where your friends are? Honestly… I’m not sure. My thoughts have always been about the safety and welfare of Equestria. Thus that is where I’ve always looked around at. It might be possible to see into that world, especially as our two worlds are connected right now.”

Sunset hugged herself, scanning the area around the clearing for signs of wildlife. “I… I think I saw the truth. Or… or maybe not. I don’t know!” Her voice cracked on the last word, and she quietly cried.

“Tell me what you saw,” Stardust said comfortingly. “It can’t be that bad, can it?”

Sunset put a hoof to her face, snuffing out the light. She could almost see the vision again. “They… they were never really my friends. None of them were. They hated me just like everyone else. They only talked to me and were nice to me because of Twilight asking them to.

“All they were doing is keeping an eye on me, expecting me to go through the portal again when it next opened… when I’d be arrested and confined for the past.”

“Oh, Sunset… I’m so sorry,” Stardust said mournfully.

Sunset put her hoof down, a joyless smile on her face. “Well, it’s no big deal, is it? All that means is I have no reason to return. No reason to return there, and no reason to stay here either. A second vision showed me the pony versions feel the same way as the human ones do.”

“Where would you go?” he asked. “Planning to find a third world to inhabit?”

Sunset stared off into the distance. “If only there was. I just want to escape all of this!” She looked down at the river. “Who would miss me if I were to… disappear?” Her fake smile disappeared, and tears began to pour down her face.

Stardust was pleased at this development. Things were going just as he had hoped. Without her friends supporting her Sunset’s outlook was crumbling. If she wanted to live then she had no choice but to entrust herself to him.

“Sunset,” he said cautiously, “suicide is not the answer.”

She turned around, and didn’t reply for a while. “Maybe not, but it’s not your choice, is it?”

“I know that, but I don’t want to see you go.”

“You don’t mean that,” she said emotionlessly. “It’s not me you really want. I’m just a vessel for you to accomplish your own means.”

‘Well… that’s not untrue,’ Stardust thought with a chuckle.

To Sunset he said, “How do you know that what you saw is even real?”

Sunset was silent again, her heart thumping. “It’s what I expected, deep down. No matter how far I run I’ll never escape from my reputation as a monster.”

“That’s what you think. What is it that you know?”

“What do I know?” Sunset replied, once more staring at her reflection. “I know from talking with Twilight that Princess Luna is free from the moon, and frees ponies from nightmares. If everything I saw was just a bad dream then at some point Luna should have sensed it and settled things down. Instead, everything I saw was horrible and painful.”

“Sunset… would it be alright if I were to go through your memories of the last few hours? I want to see these visions or nightmares for myself.”

Sunset closed her eyes. “Do what you want. I don’t care anymore.”

Of course Stardust already knew everything, but he waited for a suitable time before saying, “WHOA!”

Sunset opened her eyes halfway. “What?”

“Sunset!” he said, feigning shock. “How could you have neglected this third vision?”

“Third?” she replied, sounding half-asleep.

“Twilight… she was…”

Sunset tapped a hoof on the ground several times. “Twilight… was the only one that really believed me. Now… she’s just like all the rest. Willingly or not, everyone has turned against me. Now I’m all alone. There’s nothing left for me. I’ve lost any interest in this world.”

The jewel in the amulet was steadily thrumming, casting the area in red light.

Stardust could feel her pain and despair. Sunset was weakening. It was time to strike.

“And… what of Celestia?”

Even though the Amulet was around her neck and turned with her she still made a point of turning her back. “What about her?” she said coldly. “Ponies suffer all the time. That won’t change just because Celestia isn’t around.”

“I don’t think you really believe that, Sunset.”

He played her own words back to her. “Laugh it up while you can! I swear I’m gonna make you pay for this!”

Sunset flinched.

“The world is counting on you, Sunset. A lot of them don’t even know you exist, and some of them only know you as a villain, but a true hero is one that forges ahead no matter what obstacles are thrown in their path. You have the capacity to become that true hero, and liberate every pony that has suffered under Celestia’s rule.

“If you can accomplish this massive task then everyone that doubted you will begin to trust you. How could they not? You can kill yourself here, alone, never having accomplished your dreams. Or… you can live on just a little longer, just long enough to save the world. As you said, the choice is up to you. I cannot make that choice for you. I only think of what will be the best for the future of Equestria. I hope you will too.”

Sunset put a hoof on the Amulet, taking a deep breath. “What am I supposed to do?”

Stardust didn’t respond. She guessed he was waiting for her now.

She looked up towards the moon. It was a brilliant white now, but in the past the shadow of Nightmare Moon had been etched across it.

“I’m not a monster!” she said determinedly. “I’m not! I may have been one in the past, but that’s not me anymore. I want everyone to know that.

“I will prove that! No matter what! Even if no one else is on my side I’ll simply have to go it alone.” Her gaze grew colder. “I’m used to being on my own. When you trust others you get betrayed. Wasn’t that what I learned?” The glow from the Amulet increased in intensity.

Joy filled Stardust. ‘Excellent!’ he thought. ‘I can feel the darkness swirling around her heart. Her doubts and fears are beginning to drive a wedge into her innocence.”

Sunset spun around as she heard something traipsing through the forest in her direction. She could make out a shadow in the distance, growing larger. “You won’t take me alive!” she said fiercely. Her horn glowed bright red, and she shot a beam of energy towards the shadow.

There was a cry of pain, and Sunset paused as she prepared another attack. In the split second before the attack had hit the creature had been lit up from the light of the spell. She also recognized the voice.

She lit up her horn, running towards the one she had hit, hoping she was wrong.

She wasn’t. Zecora lay sprawled out on the forest floor, unconscious. There was a burn mark across her chest “Why? What were you doing out here?”

She put a hoof to her head. “She must have come out to check up on me.” She trotted in place for a few seconds. “This is bad! I… I didn’t want to hurt her.”

Stardust spoke quietly, imitating Sunset’s voice. “Is it really that bad? Zecora was probably setting me up like everyone else.”

Sunset took the words as her own thoughts, an uncomfortable look on her face. “Is that what I really think?” Her mind passed back to the other visions she had had. No one else had trusted her. Was it that farfetched that Zecora was among their number?

She let out a quiet growl. “Just another one I have to convince.”

“She deserved what she got.” Stardust whispered, still using her voice.

Sunset felt cold. She turned her head away, not liking these thoughts going through her head. “She was just another lookout, waiting for the slightest indication of dishonesty. Maybe she did deserve this. It was her own fault for not just trusting me and leaving me alone!

“Hmph!” Her horn glowed, picking Zecora up. “Regardless of her intentions she housed me. I can’t just leave her out here to die.” With a flash of her horn the burned area was restored. “I’ll take her to her home.”

Each step was heavy, another seemingly trustworthy individual proven to be a fraud.

Stardust would have been smirking if he had a body. The jewel was flashing bright again. Few ponies knew the true nature of the Alicorn Amulet. While he did have some degree of personal control over his hosts, the true corrupting power of the Amulet came from his host’s psyche. He’d get into their heads, expanding all their negative thoughts. Once they began to discard themselves for the sake of protecting their ego, or began to make excuses to justify their bad behavior, he knew they were sufficiently under his influence.

The more they denied themselves the stronger his influence would grow. Sunset was already jumping to conclusions just from a few implanted thoughts with no actual factual basis behind them. He had definitely gotten to her.

It wasn’t that simply using his magic made one more corrupted. But a good pony doing morally dubious things needed to fill themselves up with more lies and excuses to justify such actions, which in turn made them discard responsibility for such things. Running farther and farther away from their true selves, their hearts growing harder and harder, any action could be considered righteous in their minds.

Sunset dropped Zecora in her bed, looking coldly down at the zebra. “I’m not a bad pony!” she said strongly, though she knew Zecora couldn’t hear her. “I’ll prove it to you. I’ll prove it to everyone tomorrow. Celestia will fall. I will rule over Equestria, destroying any that threaten the peace and stability of this land.”

She turned around. “That is my duty as the wielder of this power, is it not?” Without turning around a web of magic covered Zecora’s head. “You’ve forgotten what just happened, and you’ll be asleep until I leave in the morning.”

She closed her eyes. “Twilight…” She hadn’t forgotten her rage at Celestia, or her sadness for Twilight’s plight. “Twilight, you were the only one I could count on, and now Celestia has stolen you from me as well. The Twilight I knew and loved is now… gone. And now… now…” Her voice quivered, her determination fading slightly. She shook her head hard. “No! No holding back!”

She lifted a hoof, clenching it. “Now that Celestia has brainwashed Twilight it’s going to be impossible to battle Celestia without Twilight coming to her aid. I must ‘liberate’ Twilight from Celestia’s control, no matter what it takes.” After a slight hesitation she continued on, “Even if I have to kill her to do it! That… that is my duty to her as her friend.”

The jewel flashed brightly, Sunset’s eyes turning red with it.

She knew there was no way she was going back to sleep. She tromped out of the hut, heading back towards the river to practice for her morning confrontation.

Chapter 10: The day of destiny

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The morning sun shone down on the Everfree Forest, but it wasn’t much better than the nightly moon. The forest was still eerie and dark.

Sunset was panting slightly. She had barely allowed herself rest for the past few hours. She thought that if she was constantly active she wouldn’t have space to think. She wouldn’t have to think about all the lies and slander leveled against her; of the betrayals and deceit from those she had considered close friends; of having to save Twilight the only way she knew how; and of having to confront her former teacher.

With the rising of the sun Sunset knew she couldn’t just play around anymore. It was crucial that she get a little rest and prepare for the day. Today promised to be huge for her, and by the end of it either her or Celestia would be dead.

She had to consider the possibility that it would be impossible for her to defeat Celestia alone. She didn’t doubt the power of the amulet or her own abilities, but there was always a chance that even their maximum capabilities were still far outstripped by Celestia. Celestia had been alive and ruling for over a thousand years, while she was a mere two percent of Celestia’s lifespan. Who knew what tricks and skills she possessed. There were any number of things Celestia could use against her.

While she had been Celestia’s student there was relative peace in Equestria. There were no continental-level threats to the land, so she had never actually seen Celestia engage in battle. Even so, Celestia felt like a mountain, an impenetrable wall.

She already had her plan ready to circumvent those defenses. If she had to end Twilight’s life anyway, she might as well take advantage of such a horrible action. Celestia was cold and cruel, but even she would drop her guard if she found her carefully raised student dead before her eyes. When Celestia was distracted she would prepare as powerful a spell as she could manage, and then teleport in behind her and blast her full force.

It was crucial she end the battle in a single shot. Twilight was a powerful pawn in Celestia’s game. If Celestia lived she would be furious, and her temper would be like a raging inferno.

Even were she an alicorn and wearing the Alicorn Amulet she would still be terrified of facing Celestia’s rage. No matter how dubious her morals, Celestia was the ruler of their land for a very good reason, and that reason was, naturally, her overwhelming power. Very few could hope to match her in open combat.

She considered Twilight’s threat level. Twilight was a personal student of the princess as well. They had both been powerful unicorns, learning spell after spell with ease. Twilight was gifted with above-average intelligence, much like her. Twilight was an alicorn, while she carried the Alicorn Amulet. She knew Twilight wouldn’t be nearly as strong as Celestia, and for that reason she felt confident she could prevail if she just kept her wits about her and didn’t take chances.

‘Maybe… maybe I should just side-swipe Twilight as well,’ she thought. With the safety of the world in the balance, she didn’t feel there was any place for honor. What honor was there anyway, in a fight to the death? Better to end your foe quickly and spare them undue suffering than to drag out a battle.

She flashed back to her vision of Twilight, crying with that blank stare on her face, and she knew she couldn’t do it. She wouldn’t just attack Twilight from behind. If Twilight was crying even after Celestia wiped her memory that had to mean Twilight, the real Twilight, was still inside somewhere. It was an added risk for sure, but she had to try. If she could break Twilight of Celestia’s control then maybe the two of them could team up to take Celestia down.

Celestia was already expecting her to fight, and that Twilight was her obedient slave. If she got Celestia’s attention then Twilight could attack her from behind. She would never expect Twilight would betray her.

Maybe her dream of proving herself righteous and working with Twilight to take down a monster wasn’t so farfetched after all.

She walked back towards Zecora’s hut. For whatever reason she hadn’t been bothered by the creatures of the forest. She was close to Zecora’s house. Maybe Zecora had some kind of enchantment that kept her free of bother.

Now that she had stopped practicing a myriad of different thoughts assaulted her: Twilight crying, her friends talking, Celestia on her throne, Equestria in a state of ruin, her on the throne, ponies and humans alike glaring at her.

She entered Zecora’s hut, checking up on Zecora. The zebra was still out, breathing naturally. She saw herself assaulting the unwary zebra, and she grimaced. Just because she had mended the injury didn’t just mean she’d forget what she’d done.

Sunset sat down on the bed, feeling in a foul mood now. She felt murkiness in her body, like something didn’t belong.

She got up quickly, running outside. She ran to a tree, howling as she slammed her hooves against it.

“What are you doing, Sunset?” asked Stardust.

“Shut up!” she yelled. “I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t ask for any of this! Who do you think you are, turning my life upside-down again?”

‘Excellent,’ thought Stardust. ‘Blame others for your problems. It will only make your heart weaker.’

To her he said, “Sunset, what’s troubling you? I don’t like to see you so angry.”

“HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO FEEL?” she shouted. “HUH?” She huffed for a while as she kept hitting the tree.

She slid to the ground, her heart racing with her exertion, but her body feeling so heavy. “I’m… I’m all alone. Again! Everyone betrayed me. Twilight was the only that believed in me, and now she’s gone too.”

She forced herself up on her hooves, punching the tree again. “Do you even know what you’re asking? You spun me this great vision of Equestria under my rule, but you’re an even bigger idiot than I expected.”

“Why is that?” he asked neutrally.

“Celestia lives a powerful illusion of kindness, caring, and compassion. Even I was taken in when I was younger. In the public’s eyes she is exactly who she appears to be. Do you really think anyone is going to side with me if I killed her?” She shuddered. “Of course not! They’d see me as a monster!” She put her head against the tree, hugging it. “I’m already alone! I don’t want to bear the hatred of all of Equestria on top of it.”

She quietly sobbed against the tree.

“Sunset, I think you’re forgetting something important.” She didn’t respond. “You don’t need to worry about that. All you need is the backing of an important pony high up on the power scale, which you’ll definitely have.”

“TWILIGHT?” she said sharply. “Except according to your brilliant plan I’m supposed to kill her first!”

“No, no. Not Twilight. Princess Luna.”

Sunset glanced behind her, curious. “Go on.”

“You’re correct, Sunset. Very few ponies know the true Celestia. Only those that have been personally wronged by her and seen who she really is would truly believe what you did was a benevolent act. Princess Luna is among their number.

“Luna was jealous of the attention Celestia and her day got, so she eventually rebelled, letting herself be controlled by dark forces. It ultimately did her no good, as Celestia used the Elements of Harmony against her and sealed her in the moon.

“But she knows the truth, and is too afraid to stand up against her sister again. If you take down Celestia then Luna would be eternally grateful to you, and she could vouch for you. As the second most powerful alicorn she wields considerable influence.

“You don’t have to start out befriending everyone, you know. To start with you should be happy with just a few ponies, and expand outward. Luna will be your new friend, and as you prove yourself from then on you’ll slowly win public opinion over to your side.”

Sunset’s eyes furtively glanced around, uncertain.

Whispering, he said, “You’ll be the true Princess Celestia, the one she should have been all along.”

Sunset’s body and face clenched up. “I… I came here to make peace! Not to destroy! Not to start a war!”

“Sunset…”

“I… I’ve never killed anyone before.” She began trembling, fear coursing through her. “The only time I came close was when I was a raging she-demon.”

“Sunset!” he said sharply. “That’s enough of that! How could you even compare the two? They’re not even remotely the same!”

She hugged herself, still shaking hard. “H-how are they different? They feel the same to me.”

“Sunset,” he said gently, “you’re making an association that’s not relevant. ‘I attempted to kill in the past as a monster, so if I ever try to kill it must mean that I’m a monster again.’”

Sunset shuddered hard, panting for breath, her eyes fading out.

“So that is how it is, huh? Sunset, taking the life of another is not something that should be done lightly. The fact that you’re reluctant and hesitant is proof enough that you’re righteous, and certainly not being monstrous.”

“H-huh?” Sunset replied, feeling a little lightheaded.

“You attempted to kill Twilight in the past, as a monster. You did it for selfish purposes, just because Twilight was in your way. There was no hesitance about it. You didn’t care at all about the life you tried to snuff out.

“This time around you’re doing it for noble purposes, to save Twilight from herself. You comprehend the magnitude of the action you’re attempting to take, and what it might mean for others. Isn’t that difference enough, Sunset, to prove you’re different?”

Sunset put her hooves to her eyes, blocking the light, quietly crying.

Stardust backed off for the moment. He could sway her mind and thoughts by force, but his power was doubly effective if the target willingly made their own choices. If forced into a course of action they were essentially blameless, their only crime being too weak to fend him off. If they willingly decided to do something they only had themselves to blame for how things turned out. And because they believed in their own goodness the only way to maintain their self-image was to harden their heart and lie to themselves, thereby making them more susceptible to his influence.

He was a best friend, someone to confide in. He was someone they could trust. And he was right there whenever they needed an excuse, some way to justify their behavior. True corruption of others came not from mind control or stealing anothers free will, but from convincing the target to convince themselves of their rightness, no matter how horrible the action.

Stardust wondered how things were going to turn out. It was a lucky break that Sunset had already had a grudge against Celestia in the past, but he wondered if just one night cycle was enough to break Sunset to his will. Sunset was clearly balking at the idea of killing Twilight, though she seemed fine with the idea of killing Celestia.

He thought about the different way things might go, and considered just drawing things out for another day so he had more time to work on Sunset. He discarded the notion quickly. Sunset believed Twilight to be just a brainwashed pawn at the moment. Celestia was also going to leave Canterlot, away from her alicorn sister and army of guards. She’d be at her least protected, at least as far as others were concerned. He had to forget about just attacking Celestia first and leaving Twilight for the time being. Twilight would naturally protect Celestia if Sunset began attacking her.

He didn’t have any choice but to go with the original plan, and just wait to see what happened. If need be he could sway Sunset through force, but he really didn’t want it to come to that. If he lost Sunset’s trust she might take him off.

He’d done all he could with the little time he had. Now he just had to wait for Sunset to catch up.

It took a while for Sunset to compose herself. Her heart was heavy, her expression matching it. “I… I said…” She gulped, sounding more determined than she felt as she continued, “I said that I’d do anything to help Twilight, even if it meant taking her down. I can’t take it back now. So many others are counting on me, and if I want to be a true alicorn then I can’t put one single pony above the world. I have to do what is necessary for the betterment of our species.”

She swayed, dizzy. Her vision was swimming and she felt nauseous. Knowing that didn’t make it feel any easier.

As she tilted over she put a hoof out to break her fall. ‘Do… do I really have the strength for this?’ she thought. ‘Is this really what I want to do?’ She felt like she was standing at the top of a tall mountain, staring down into a black abyss. She was being asked to jump blindly into it, with no idea of what would occur when she did.

She curled up into a ball on her side, crying again as she squeezed her stomach. “Twilight,” she said in a broken voice. Twilight seemed like the type that always had some helpful advice, but Twilight couldn’t help her any longer. There was no one to ask for advice. There was no one else to turn to. She had to make the ultimate decision… one that she could never take back once it was done.

Did she really want that on her conscience the rest of her life? Even after she ascended and spent the next few years gaining everyone’s trust would she ever be able to forget that Twilight had fallen by her hoof?

Stardust gently probed her. “Of course not,” he said. “You shouldn’t ever forget it, or how you felt. This is no small matter that should just be swept under a rug and left forgotten. You should keep those feelings at the forefront of your heart, lest you ever forget the gravity of such an action.

“The whole goal of your ascension is that you not turn out like Celestia, who has long since forgotten the feelings of others. If you ever forgot how horrible it felt to kill Twilight you could go down her same path, destroying all those that stand in your way. Do not become overwhelmed by what is necessary, but neither should you dismiss the enormity of it. When it comes to any difficult matter you can either be crushed by it, or learn something valuable from it. The choice is yours, Sunset.”

Sunset settled down slightly, biting her hoof. She pushed herself to a sitting position, considering what she had just heard.

“I can only guide you and offer you advice. You must blaze your own path, and be held responsible for the choices you make. As you said, a true alicorn must be a pony of the people. They will look to you for advice, and you must consider every one of them as valuable. That will be expected of you.”

Sunset slowly breathed in, then just as slowly let it out. “My heart feels like it’s tearing in two. My mind is stuck alternating between ‘I don’t want to’ and ‘I have to.’ And the latter thought is right. There are plenty of things none of us want to do that are necessary. If it was easy everyone would do it.

“A true hero must put everything aside for others, even if it costs them their life.” She lifted a hoof to the sky. “Why did I gain this power? Why did I find you? What’s the point of it all if I don’t do something with it? No one else can do it. Luna is too terrified, and I guess Cadance doesn’t want to go the same route as Luna did.

“Only I can do it. Only I can save everyone. Even if it costs me my life I’ll at least take Celestia with me. That is my obligation as the holder of this power. There is nothing to fear.” Sunset ignored the slight tremble in her hoof as she said that.

“Sunset, you shouldn’t dismiss fear, either. As is said, the truest courage is not a total absence of fear, but pushing past everything despite the fear. Fear can be a powerful motivator. You have to make even your negative emotions work for you, instead of the other way around.

“You still have a ways to go, Sunset. You’re still too controlled by your emotions, and it will lead you astray from the path you seek.”

Sunset lowered her hoof, silent for a minute. “Finding you flipped my whole world around. Am I supposed to be calm and composed when today is supposed to entail killing a mind controlled puppet and the most powerful pony in the realm?”

“Of course this is a big day. I understand that, but you won’t be an effective ruler until you can reign in your feelings and let your determination lead the way. You must strike a delicate balance between detaching yourself from your feelings while at the same time not abandoning your morals and values.”

Sunset closed her eyes, focusing on her breathing. “I… I understand.” She took another few breaths before suddenly raising her leg and biting her hoof. She just couldn’t take it all in at once.

“Your anxiety is natural, Sunset. Let me help you for now. This control will be artificial, but it will help you get through the day without your mind breaking in two. If we only had more time things could be different, but we don’t.”

She took her hoof out of her mouth, setting it down. “What do you mean?”

“I’ll give you… hmm, how do I put this? You already have courage, as well as determination, but you’re inexperienced with leadership and controlling your emotions to do what is necessary. I mostly led a solitary life as I grew older, but I do have those qualities.

“I want you to grow and mature on your own, of course, but as I just said we don’t have the luxury of time for you to learn. Twilight is expecting you and Celestia is coming shortly after that. I can help you.”

Sunset frowned. “How? By making me just like Twilight? By turning me into a mindless puppet?”

“No, no, no!” Stardust quickly replied. “You misunderstand me. You will still be in full control of your body and thoughts. I will simply be managing your emotions so you do not become overwhelmed by them. If you let your emotions control you then you could let personal feelings overwhelm what needs to be done for the safety of others.”

Sunset looked down at the ground, her eyes closing slightly. “And… you think it’s better to rule by cold logic? To treat others like they’re not even ponies with needs and feelings?”

“I didn’t say that. Sometimes there are no right answers, and decisions must be made that do not entail a fairy tale ending. It’s another thing you must learn to balance out in time, between the honest truth and how you wish things could be.

“At times what you wish is unobtainable. That is one of the most important things you must learn if you are to be a ruler. If you cannot accept that then you’ll never be fit to be queen.”

“I… I know that. In an ideal world we’d all be equals, everyone would eat heartily, and all that other flowery prose. I guess it’s just hard to wrap my head around all of this so quickly.” She put a hoof to her face. “I… I can’t handle this all by myself. At least not now. I need your help.”

Stardust was happy. With a little bit of his influence guiding her actions she would be well-equipped to be his servant. He just had to leave her enough room to still be her own mare making her own decisions.

The jewel in the amulet glowed red, and Sunset had that icky feeling inside like when he had tested her. She clenched her eyes tight, her body clenching up. She felt like she was losing something valuable to her, but she didn’t know what.

Her fearful eyes grew stern and unemotional. Her slight tremors had ended. All her whirling, raging emotions and doubts had silenced themselves. All she was left with was herself. She stood up on her four legs, feeling heavy. Her coat seemed to have lost some of its luster.

She took a deep breath. “Is this it?” she said, more to herself than Stardust. “I don’t think I care much for this, even if the inner silence is a relief.”

Stardust went to speak, but she cut him off. “Quiet! I don’t want your input right now. What do you really know about me? You were always beloved by all, given the highest honors. I was mistrusted and put down.” She roughly threw her hoof through her mane.

‘Jealousy, now?’ Stardust mused, chuckling.

“Twilight’s the same. Everyone loves her, adores her… it’s not fair! Why am I so different? All I ever did was work hard, and my efforts were thrown back in my face.” She put her hoof through her mane again. “Well… I can’t deny that I admire Twilight as well. She’s far more noble than Celestia is, that’s for sure.”

Sunset felt irritated, trotting in place. Everything she thought about just egged her on even more. “I can’t sit still anymore!” she said harshly, her horn glowing. She crafted a pair of magic wings and attached them to her back. “I need action! I need to accomplish what I set out to do while there’s still time.”

“Of course, Sunset. I understand. Let us leave immediately.”

Sunset raised her wings, preparing to take off. She stopped suddenly. “No… not yet. There is one thing that needs to be done before we go.”

“What’s that?”

“Tell me something. Do you know how to do a duplication spell?”

“Duplication? Ha! That’s child’s play. Why do you ask?”

“Twilight has multiple layers of protection. If we don’t acknowledge that we’ll lose. This duplication spell is insurance.”

“I see… so that’s what this is about. Very well. Watch closely, Sunset, and learn the spell well.”

Sunset felt Stardust enter into her body again, lifting up a log. With a flash of her horn a duplicate appeared next to it, exactly the same as the original.

With a bit of practice Sunset mastered the spell herself.

Sunset felt ready. There was just one last thing to do. Going to Zecora’s hut she broke the sleeping incantation on the Zebra and implanted a memory of the two of them parting amicably. Zecora would find nothing suspicious about that. She grabbed her traveling cloak, putting it on. That was going to be important later on. She had to cancel the wing spell and recreate it to put it on top of the cloak, though.

The moment was upon her. She stood in silence, mentally preparing herself. There was no turning back now.

Crouching slightly she unfurled her wings to their maximum and jumped, flapping her wings to take to the air.

Now was the time of destiny! Now was the time to change the world!

Chapter 11: The battle begins

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Twilight was up and ready for the day to come. She had just eaten breakfast, woken up Spike, and completed her morning routine.

She had dusted the library until it was sparkling, but she didn’t think they would spend their time only in the library. She left Spike to start his chores and prepare for the princess.

Celestia had begun to insist she didn’t want a big fuss made of her visits, but she thought a few flourishes couldn’t hurt. She trotted over to Ponyville Park, gathering up flowers and wrapping them up, placing them around.

As she went to place another bouquet of flowers up she heard a whistling vibration, and she gasped as the flowers were blasted to ashes.

She looked up, annoyed, thinking one of her friends was playing a prank on her. She saw a pony flying in the sky, which she found odd. How could a pegasus have blasted the flowers? The pony was wearing a cloak that obscured their head and most of their body. Her orange hooves were the only clearly visible part of her. It didn’t match any of her friends, nor any of the alicorns.

“Hey!” she complained. “What did you do that for?”

The pony’s flapping slowed and they landed on the ground. Twilight’s annoyance faded as she saw the pony’s wings. They clearly weren’t ordinary pegasus wings. They had to be artificial. Though the constitution was different it reminded her of the gossamer wings she had made for Rarity way back when. This pony’s wings were translucent. She found herself pondering what their wings were made out of. She always loved learning.

Coming back to herself she put her inquisitive mind in the background for the time being. “Hey! Why did you ruin my flowers?”

The pony hung their head. In a quiet voice they said, “I had to get your attention somehow. It was vital I see you.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Did you ever think of just saying ‘Hello?’ I’m not deaf, you know.”

“I could give them back if you wish.”

Twilight thought they sounded female.

The mare pointed to the ashes, and her horn glowed red. The ashes floated up into the air, restoring themselves into flowers.

Twilight’s interest was peaking again. Returning something to its previous state was something that required considerable magical talent. It wasn’t something your average, run-of-the-mill unicorn could accomplish. “So who are you? And why did you want to see me?”

“You already know who I am.”

“I do?” she asked, running through her memories again. No one she could recall had a red magical aura outside of her brother, but he certainly didn’t have an orange coat. “I’m afraid I’m drawing a blank.”

The mare ignored this. “As for why I’m here…” She flipped her hood back, revealing herself.

“Sunset?” Twilight responded, flabbergasted. Sunset had once been Celestia’s student, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume Sunset had powerful magic, but she knew Sunset’s magical aura was a light green. She started to get a bad feeling that today wasn’t going to be as simple and wonderful as she had hoped. “Yeah? You’re here for what?"

Looking at Twilight with a sad smile she said desolately, “I… I’m here to kill you.”

Twilight’s insides went cold as she backed up a step. Her mind began racing for possibilities, anything to dismiss what she just heard. The different magical aura had to mean this wasn’t actually Sunset in front of her, didn’t it? After all of Sunset’s tearful speeches and sincere expressions of regret there was no way Sunset would just come back the next day with homicide on the mind.

“Who are you?” she said coldly. “WHO ARE YOU REALLY?” She couldn’t keep from shouting as worry for the real Sunset overtook her. “WHERE IS SUNSET?”

Sunset didn’t flinch at her outburst. “Twilight Sparkle, there is no need to fear it. There is only one Sunset, standing before you.”

“You’re lying!” Twilight’s eyes narrowed, her horn starting to glow.

“You going to kill me, Twilight?” Sunset began to laugh, a broken, mirthless laugh. “Isn’t it too early for that? Celestia would miss out on all the fun.”

“I don’t believe for a second you’re really Sunset Shimmer!”

“I haven’t become a new pony, you know. I’ve only awakened to the truth. Tell me something. Do you remember a letter from the princess, and going to Canterlot last night?”

Twilight gazed at her strangely, the glow fading. “What are you talking about? After everyone left I did a little sprucing up and went to bed.”

Sunset let out a knowing “Hmph.” She shook her head. “Of course you don’t remember. After all the brainwashing and despair you went through last night of course you wouldn’t be allowed to remember what was done to you.”

Twilight only felt more and more confused. This pony before her likely wasn’t Sunset, but their ideas seemed crazy. “And just what was ‘done to me’ last night?”

Sunset looked at the ground. “You really cared for Sunset, didn’t you? You believed in me when no one else did. You stood up for me when no one else did.” Tears splashed onto the ground. “But Celestia didn’t. She refused to think I had changed. She only saw me as the old me. And you spoke in my defense, defying her ideas and plans for me. She couldn’t have that.

“I saw it all. I saw her attack you.” Her eyes clenched shut as she thought of the vision. “I was powerless to help you! I could only watch helplessly as she assaulted you and stripped those thoughts from you, forcing you to hate me. Forcing you to fall in line with her thoughts.”

She looked up, tears dripping from her eyes. “And now you stand before me naïve and innocent, not even knowing the truth, only stalling me until Celestia arrives to take me away.”

Something felt very wrong. If it was a fake Sunset why did their emotions feel so raw and real? If it was the real Sunset then where did she get such outlandish ideas, and why did she even believe them in the first place?

“But I’m not going to just go quietly!” Sunset said angrily, a flash of red coloring her eyes for a second. “I’ll defend myself to my last breath for the good of this country!”

Something felt very familiar to Twilight. Sunset’s eyes had definitely changed color for a moment. When had that happened before? “AH!” she cried out, her eyes going to the front of Sunset’s cloak. She froze, seeing the Alicorn Amulet clasped around the cloak. Her insides felt like ice. Where had Sunset even gotten it? “Oh!” She remembered a few years ago that she had given the Amulet to Zecora for safekeeping, as so few ponies ever went into the Everfree Forest.

She began shaking. She had already gone through this experience once with Trixie. Sunset was being slowly corrupted by that thing she wore. If Sunset wasn’t stopped her soul would only grow darker and darker until she was unrecognizable.

In the past the Alicorn Amulet gave Trixie enough power to cast high level spells without repercussion. Trixie’s skills even surpassed her own, Celestia’s own personal student. She had been unable to take Trixie on power for power. She’d had to rely on outsmarting Trixie to remove the Amulet, as it could only be removed by its user.

She was an alicorn now, and thus her magic had gotten a gigantic boost. But it didn’t matter much in this situation. Even if she could defeat Sunset in battle it would do nothing to get rid of the problem of the Amulet. Thinking on it a little harder she retracted that thought. If she could knock Sunset unconscious then perhaps she could destroy the Amulet itself. It would be tricky to target such a small target in open battle without harming Sunset. Still, she didn’t want it to come to that.

Her other option was to trick Sunset as she had Trixie. She didn’t think that would be nearly as easy as it had been for Trixie. Trixie only wanted to humiliate her. Sunset was claiming she wanted her dead.

Looking back she wished she had done more research on the Alicorn Amulet after her duel with Trixie. The book her friends had found didn’t have any details that would be helpful in this situation. It granted a magic boost, but corrupted the user. It could only be removed by the wielder. That was the gist of what it said. It didn’t have any concrete info on who had created it, and why. It didn’t explain why it corrupted the user.

Twilight was curious, and as Sunset had not yet gotten violent she might as well ask, as she was genuinely interested. Any information, no matter how slight, might be useful in one way or another. “Sunset…” She took a step forward. “What… what was that you were saying before? About Celestia attacking me and brainwashing me? Why would she do that?” She shook her head. “Wait a minute, no. That’s not even the biggest issue. You said that you SAW this happening. But how?”

“Last night, when I was in bed.” She put a hoof on the Amulet, rubbing it. “It’s another one of the Amulet’s powers. It allows me to see visions of what’s going on in Equestria… and beyond.”

Twilight processed that. She didn’t know the full extent of the Alicorn Amulet’s abilities, so she couldn’t exact claim it couldn’t do that. “Sunset, the Amulet may have that ability, but if it happened when you were in bed doesn’t it seem more likely you were just having a nightmare? The idea of meeting Celestia was something that was causing you great anxiety. It’s not a stretch to think that fear would make itself manifest in your dreams.”

Sunset stared back at her blankly. “Oh, Twilight… how I wish that was true. I wish I didn’t awaken to the truth. Celestia… I had good reason to leave her behind. She’s a cruel, monstrous tyrant who isn’t afraid to abuse her subjects! I could easily believe she would torment you for defying her.”

Twilight put a hoof to her mouth, trying not to cry. The Amulet’s influence had already gotten a strong hold over her. “Where is this coming from, Sunset?” she asked, her voice shaking slightly. She couldn’t afford to let her emotions overcome her good judgment, but it was hard when a good friend was in danger. “You saw one thing in the middle of the night when you were likely just dreaming, and that alone is enough to make you abandon everything you said to me yesterday?”

Sunset saw a tear come down Twilight’s eyes, and she found a tear coming down her own in sympathy. “I know you’re fighting, Twilight. I know the real you is in there somewhere, but you’re not strong enough to break free. That’s why… t-t-that’s w-why… I’m going to save you… the only way I know how.”

Twilight looked at the ground. “By killing me?” she said quietly.

Sunset nodded. “It’s the only way.”

“Answer me this, Sunset.” She looked up, meeting her eyes. “Is this what you really want to do?”

Sunset met her gaze for a few seconds before she broke eye contact. “How could you even ask that of me? Of course not. I trust you with all my heart and consider you a precious friend. You saved me from myself when I was in a bad spot and helped to put me on the right path.”

“And I entrusted you to the care of my human-world friends. As equivalent beings to my pony friends I knew they would be perfect to keep watch over you and help keep you on that path.”

Sunset let out a sharp breath. “They watched over me, yes, but they never once trusted me. They distrusted me just like everyone else. They only pretended to be my friends for your sake.”

“Is that another ‘vision’ you had, or did you come up with that conclusion yourself?”

“It was a vision. My so-called friends revealed their true intentions, talking in the halls of Canterlot.”

“Come on, Sunset!” she said angrily. “Snap out of it! Isn’t all that just a little too convenient? I suppose you had one of our pony world friends too?” Sunset didn’t respond, but she shifted a little, making the answer obvious. “Friendship and trust is based on time and experience. You spent three years together. You want to tell me they’ve been putting on a perfect act for that long?”

Sunset turned away. “Facts are something that cannot be denied. And he revealed the truth to me.”

“He?” Twilight asked, perplexed. “Who’s ‘he?’”

Stardust quietly growled before saying angrily to Sunset, “Shut up! We don’t want to give her any information that could be used against us.”

‘Stay out of this!’ Sunset hissed in her mind. ‘This is my personal business. It’s hard enough without you butting in.’

Stardust’s temper began to flare up, but he forced himself to relax. So long as Sunset was still adhering to his will he didn’t have to interfere.

Twilight didn’t think Sunset was lying. She could only have had the Amulet for about twelve hours. It likely wasn’t enough time to completely brainwash her, but it had had some effect on Sunset’s thoughts. Sunset was clearly reluctant.

She stared at Sunset, but was seeing right through her. She had to infer that the Alicorn Amulet had some sort of consciousness. Or perhaps it had some kind of hypnotism spell on it that compelled a pony to obey his will, though that would seem to mean that the one behind the Alicorn Amulet was always watching from a distance. She couldn’t be sure. All she knew for sure was that the binding of the Amulet continuously grew stronger the longer it was worn and used.

From what she’d heard Sunset believed that everyone had turned against her. Everyone except her, Twilight, but now she had been brainwashed, so effectively Sunset was alone in her mind. In the past Sunset had relied only on herself and trusted no one. If Sunset was now convinced that everyone she had come to rely on didn’t really care about her it wasn’t surprising Sunset would begin to revert to her past self in order to survive. It had gone after her biggest weakness.

Twilight wondered what she would be like if she thought her friends didn’t care about her anymore. A cold shudder went through her. She did know. She had gone through it before, when Discord had first escaped his stone prison. Discord had corrupted each of her friends, turning them into the opposite of themselves. It had slowly grated on her nerves the way they were all acting, driving her crazy, and it all came to a head when they failed to use the Elements to stop him.

As all of them had left she had felt despair pulling at her. After the wonders of friendship had been revealed to her it felt like it was all being pulled away. She had been ready to leave Ponyville, and had even started packing, not knowing where she was going to go.

Now Sunset was being pulled back into that same cold, lonely place. She wouldn’t let that happen.

“Oh!” Twilight exclaimed. The Elements of Harmony! They were exactly what she needed. Sure, she couldn’t physically or magically remove the Amulet from Sunset because of the magical lock, but if she could hit the Amulet with the power of the Elements its darkness would be purified, and thus its power over Sunset would break as well.

Sunset shook her head. “Enough of this. I’ll end this quickly!” Taking to the sky her horn charged up, and a beam of magic came soaring towards Twilight.

Twilight let out a surprised, “Yeep!” The beam was huge. Her own horn began to glow, and just before the blast hit she teleported away.

There was an explosion and a cloud of dust covered the area. As it cleared Sunset was unsurprised to see the crater was empty.

“She’s gone,” said Stardust. “Are you going to just let her get away? She might have gone to call Celestia. She certainly wouldn’t be expecting you to have found me.”

“No worries,” Sunset said, slowly lowering herself back to the ground. “I saw that spark of light in Twilight’s eyes. I know exactly what she’s up to.” She chuckled to herself. “That’s right. There’s nothing to worry about.”

Twilight panted as she poofed into the middle of the library. “What power!” she said to herself. “Trixie certainly didn’t get that powerful… but that’s probably because she wasn’t as knowledgeable in spells as Sunset Shimmer is.”

Spike saw Twilight breathing heavily and asked, “What’s wrong, Twilight?” He jogged over to her. “You look kinda scared.”

Twilight turned to Spike, pulling him towards her and giving him a big hug.

“T-Twilight?” he responded, confused. It wasn’t like they never hugged one another, but Twilight was usually one to talk about her problems. That she was clinging to him for comfort worried him even more.

Twilight took in a few breaths to steady herself. Sunset had definitely made a move against her life. If she had been a second later in teleporting…

She released Spike, feeling a little better. Time was precious. If Sunset was really ready to kill her then who knew what she would do if left alone? Sunset might start blasting every house in sight looking for her.

She ran towards the glass case that held the Elements of Harmony, lifting it up in her magic. She grabbed the Element of Magic, placing it on her head.

“Uh-oh!” said Spike, interlacing his claws. “We have a new foe, and this early in the morning.”

Twilight paused, a sour taste in her mouth. She turned to Spike, shaking her head. “No, Spike. It’s an old one. When I sent Sunset to Zecora’s she somehow discovered the Alicorn Amulet.” Spike’s eyes widened. “I’m sure you understand where I’m going with this.”

“Sunset… attacked you?”

Twilight averted her gaze, giving a curt nod. “She’s not herself, Spike. The stuff she was saying…” She shook her head again. “Things won’t be the same as with Trixie. I know what I’m up against this time, and I also have the Elements of Harmony. One shot of this will turn Sunset back to normal just like the last time.” Her eyes narrowed. “I’m NOT going to allow this to ruin Sunset’s redemption.”

“So…” Spike restlessly kicked his leg on the floor. “So I guess I shouldn’t tell Princess Celestia about this?”

“Absolutely not!” Twilight said with a bit of panic, turning back toward him. “Sunset has been terrified the whole time about meeting Celestia. Sunset would never want to meet her when she is freed of its influence and finds out what she did.”

Twilight shook her head. “Ah! I don’t have time to explain everything. Sunset is by Ponyville Park, and I don’t know if she’s gonna stay there. It’s still early, so all my friends should be near their homes.”

“Good luck, Twilight!” Spike said encouragingly, hugging her leg. “I know you can do it!”

Twilight beamed down at him, putting a leg around him as she nuzzled his forehead. “No worries, Spike. I would never let down a friend.”

Grabbing the other five Elements in her magic she let Spike go and teleported over to Sugarcube Corner. She found Pinkie and Mrs. Cake manning the register. “Pinkie, I need you to come with me right now. No questions. Just take your Element of Harmony.”

Seeing the dead serious look on Twilight’s face she only nodded as she put on the Element of Laughter.

She poofed around to each of her friend’s houses as she gave them their Elements. When she had all six of them she hoped that Sunset Shimmer hadn’t moved far as she teleported all of them back to the park.

To her relief she saw that Sunset Shimmer hadn’t seemed to move an inch. “Ah… you’re back,” Sunset said calmly as she turned towards the six. “Took you long enough,”

“Sunset Shimmer!” Twilight said strongly. “We have the Elements of Harmony. Even you have to know that the power of the Elements can overpower your Amulet. If you value your life and well-being then remove the Alicorn Amulet now!”

“The Alicorn Amulet?” asked Applejack. “How in the hay did she get that?”

“It was my fault. I was the one who sent her to sleep at Zecora’s place.” She turned back to Sunset. “Well? What’s your answer?”

Sunset didn’t respond. She only started rubbing the Amulet again.

“I will do what I have to do to protect Ponyville. This is my second warning, I’m not giving you a third!” Still nothing. With a big sigh Twilight felt a few tears come down her eyes as she said regretfully, “Girls...” Even if it was necessary, and wouldn’t actually hurt Sunset, she still didn’t want to attack Sunset after how far she’d come.

The Elements began powering up. “Last chance. I’ll give you five seconds. Five…four…three…two…”

Sunset Shimmer looked up at the great energy being created by the elements. As Twilight said “one” she grabbed the Amulet, growling as she pulled it off.

Sunset suddenly started blinking, looking confused as she gazed around. “Huh? What happened?” she asked in a confused voice. She suddenly focused on the others. “Twilight? How did I get over here? What’s going on?”

Twilight let out a sigh of relief. Using her magic to make sure Sunset couldn’t change her mind she levitated the Amulet over to her before handing it over to Applejack to hold on to. She walked towards Sunset Shimmer. “The Alicorn Amulet corrupted your mind. It’s over now.”

“The… oh my gosh. I shouldn’t have put it on. I… I just wanted to be helpful to you if an emergency happened. That way…” She turned around. “I just thought that if I could help you out with something big then Princess Celestia would accept my apology for abandoning her.”

“Princess Celestia ALREADY forgave you for what you did. That’s why she kept hoping you would return through the portal.” She moved around so she was facing Sunset Shimmer. “I understand why you did what you did, but you don’t have to do anything other than just show that you’re trying to change.”

“Thanks…Twilight.” She threw a hoof around Twilight, and Twilight returned the gesture.

“No problem.”

“For being such a trusting fool, that is!”

“Huh?” said Twilight as she heard Sunset’s voice turn cold again. Sunset’s hoof moved away from her and her head suddenly got lighter. “The Element!” she cried out as a red burst of magic covered it and it disappeared.

Sunset began to laugh hysterically. The only thing Twilight could use to stop her was gone. Now she could save Twilight for sure.

Twilight was horrorstruck. Sunset had just sent away her Element of Harmony. “I don’t understand. The Amulet’s power should have been broken when it was removed.”

Sunset Shimmer smirked. “Do you really think I’m so naïve, Twilight Sparkle? I knew what your response would be to me showing up with the Amulet. I came prepared.” She removed her cloak to show she was wearing the Alicorn Amulet underneath it.

Twilight looked over at Applejack, who was also still holding the Alicorn Amulet. “There are two of them?”

“Of course not, you dolt. That one over there is a fake. Just a simple duplication spell. I knew you wouldn’t want to hurt me, but I also knew you would do what you felt was necessary. I just needed a way to get you to drop your guard so I could remove that traitorous Element of Magic. Who knows where it ended up with that spell? Maybe the other side of Equestria, or even the moon. Now all your precious Elements are useless. Let’s play a little, Twilight Sparkle!”

Twilight quickly jumped out the way as a blast headed toward her. Now what was she supposed to do? Her magic had gotten a boost in power when she had transformed into an alicorn. Would that be enough to allow her to fight on an equal level with someone who also got a boost from the Amulet? If she could just prolong the battle long enough Sunset might run out of magic and then they could figure out where to go from there. Of course the opposite might also be true, and she herself would be left without magic.

Each time Sunset Shimmer fired at her she kept dodging out the way. Twilight saw she was only using low level spells now. She wasn’t firing large blasts anymore.

“Is running away all that you can do, Princess?” asked Sunset Shimmer. “It seems you’re not all that interested in fighting me. Is that because you’re scared, or because you’re still trying to figure out a way to win without harming me? I guess maybe I need to give you some inspiration.” She smirked.

Twilight let out a gasp as Sunset turned towards her friends. She quickly teleported next to them as Sunset fired a medium sized blast. Twilight jumped up, flying towards it as her horn began glowing. She deflected it around them as she blasted it point blank. “Sunset! Leave my friends out of this. Your fight is with me.”

“True, but it’s not a fight if only one of us is trying. I want to fully test out this power before I take out Celestia. You’re my test subject for that, so give it all you’ve got.”

“I don’t want to fight you! You don’t need that kind of power. Do you even really believe what you’re saying? That I’m a brainwashed pawn and Princess Celestia is a cruel tyrant?” She flew up to Sunset’s level. “Think about how ridiculous that sounds. It has no basis in fact.”

Sunset let out a laugh. It started out small, but it quickly increased in intensity until she couldn’t breathe. “O-oh. Now that’s funny. Of course you can’t see it. Celestia has done a great job on you. I shall become the new ruler of Equestria. Then I will usher in a new age of peace, safe from that horrible abomination on the throne.”

“You’re talking about peace while you’re plotting to murder two alicorns? What about everything you were saying yesterday? Was it all a lie? This isn’t YOU! There’s still time. You can still go back and fix things. Just throw away the Amulet.”

Sunset Shimmer gazed back at her, an inscrutable expression on her face. “I thought I knew what I wanted… and I was right all along. I underestimated your power back then. You defeated me through the power of friendship. I’ll acknowledge that. But if one can obtain a power even greater than that… then shouldn’t they be the ruler?

“Think about how many times Celestia has placed you in dangerous situations in the name of 'growth' and 'lessons,' while not lifting a hoof to help you. Or how about what happened to her sister Luna? Of course she was banished… because Celestia wanted to make sure nothing was stronger than her. What did Celestia DO with that thousand years, besides sit and be lazy? With so much time to practice she should have been able to easily handle Discord without the Elements. She is clearly incompetent. You’re an obedient minion who never questions her motives. That is why she favors you so much more highly than me. I alone was smart enough to say no to her.

“It’s okay if you don’t understand, but this is the power I’ve dreamed of since I was small. And with it I’ll take everything I desire.”

“And what of the other’s? Will you kill Princess Luna too, and then Cadance? And then everyone who disagrees with your ascension? If you do that you’ll be no better than the Princess Celestia you envision her to be.”

“Wrong, Twilight Sparkle. In order to have a healthy land first the impurities must be cleared away. Celestia is not fit for her post and has caused everyone enough torment. She had a long time to repent and change her ways, but she’s too stubborn to admit when she was wrong. Thus, even if she is deposed from the throne she’ll still be a major threat. It will take some time for the change to occur, but after she’s gone they can stop being afraid and live good lives.

“Now, I grow tired of this weary talk. It’s clear that you’re too far gone as well, and trying to fight two alicorns at once would be difficult even for me, so I think I better speed things along. I was hoping to draw out your full potential so I could test the limits of my power, but you’re clearly not going to entertain me.” A large glow came from her horn.

Twilight sighed. She knew talking would change nothing while Sunset was under its spell, but she had hoped that she could get through to her. She would have to fight. She closed her eyes, slowly lowering herself to the ground. Sunset did likewise. “Very well,” she said. “I’ll fight you, but only if you promise to keep my friends completely out of this fight.”

Sunset grinned serenely as the glow from her horn faded. “Of course, Twilight. I’m not a monster. I would never want to involve innocents in our contest.” She turned towards the other five, closing her eyes as she focused her energy. A sphere of energy came from the ground, wrapping them inside it. “Rainbow Dash! You’ll be my brave volunteer.”

A red aura appeared around the pegasus, dragging her towards the barrier. Rainbow braced herself for impact, but she went right through it without harm. Sunset moved her back and forth a few times before leaving her inside the barrier.

“As you can see one can enter or leave the barrier at their discretion without trouble. However…” Sunset’s horn glowed as she lifted part of a tree and chucked it towards the shield, along with a magic blast. Fluttershy recoiled, and Applejack got into a ready stance, but the tree bounced off and the energy blast was absorbed into it. “Nonliving objects, as well as magical blasts, can’t get through. And…” Her horn glowed again, and a similar spherical barrier covered most of Ponyville, leaving only the park uncovered. It was like a donut-shaped shield encircling them. “Are you satisfied, Twilight?”

Twilight looked around at the barriers around her. Having seen its power for herself she believed that Sunset was genuine in not wanting to get others involved, at least for now. As its power grew stronger over her then her morals would begin to slip as well.

In retrospect she felt foolish. True, she had no way to expect a duplication spell, but Sunset’s actions after removing the Amulet were to act like she had amnesia, with no memory of what she had just been doing. Trixie had continued what she had been doing for a short time, angry at Rainbow for taking the Amulet and attempting to electrocute her.

She sighed. “Guess there’s no way around it,” she said to herself. “A magic duel it is.”

Sunset powered up her horn. “About time. Let’s do it!” Raising her hooves she lifted up the water in the pond. Stretching it into a thin shape she snapped it like a whip towards Twilight.

Twilight’s horn glowed as well, and the ground in front of her lifted up a few feet, absorbing the blow.

“Not good enough!” Sunset cried out, moving the water into a wall shape and encircling Twilight inside it.

Twilight let out some bubbles as she felt the water squeezing her. With a flash she disappeared, appearing a few feet away. Twilight flung a clump of earth towards Sunset, who levitated the water back upwards.

Now Sunset had a giant ball of mud.

As it came toward her Twilight let out a cry of surprise as she began sinking into the ground. Unfurling her wings she flapped them hard, pulling herself out just as the mud ball crashed into where she had been stuck just moments before.

Twilight summoned earmuffs for herself and each of her friends before she also summoned a giant gong and mallet. She slammed it as hard as she could.

Sunset put her hooves to her ears as the sound reverberated through her body. She quickly descended, unable to focus. The auto-correct function of the wings took effect, keeping her airborne as she neared the ground.

Twilight decided to use a hypnosis spell. If she could control Sunset’s actions she could make her take off the Amulet. Her eyes opened wide, focusing on Sunset.

Sunset growled softly. Her ears were still ringing. She looked up with one eye towards Twilight. As she met Twilight’s gaze she found she couldn’t look away. A sudden absence consumed her, like she had just vanished as a person.

“Take it off,” a voice echoed in her mind. “Take off the Amulet.”

Sunset’s hooves moved automatically towards the Alicorn Amulet.

“Hmph!” Stardust said dismissively. “It isn’t going to be that easy, you brat.” He gave Sunset a mental kick, asserting control over her. “Wake up, Sunset!”

Sunset felt her consciousness returning. She forced her head away. “Stupid Twilight!” she said with a huff. Concentrating on her magic she used a healing spell to repair her ears. “It will take more than that to stop me! A lot more!”

Twilight let out a tsk. She had seen it start to work, but Sunset’s will had been stronger than she thought. Even weakened she could still fight back. She really didn’t want to actually harm Sunset, but it seemed she might not have a choice. If hypnosis could work she’d have to weaken Sunset considerably so she couldn’t resist her spell.

So what should she do? Stall as long as possible and hope that Sunset exhausted herself? That wouldn’t do. She had no idea when exactly Princess Celestia would arrive. She couldn’t afford to drag things out endlessly. She absolutely didn’t want Celestia to arrive and see Sunset attempting murder. She had to resolve this before Celestia arrived no matter what.

Options whirled around in her mind, but she kept coming back to a simple truth: she had to damage Sunset. Without the power of the Elements the only option she had now was to get Sunset to remove the Alicorn Amulet herself. Sunset wouldn’t do so willingly. Trixie only took it off because she had been tricked into believing a lie, that Zecora’s special neckless could grant even greater power than the Alicorn Amulet. She didn’t think that would work a second time, especially as Sunset wasn’t out to show off, but to kill.

Twilight wondered what it was that made Sunset so much more vicious in her actions compared to Trixie. Trixie had felt humiliated and ostracized, believing if she could prove she really was superior that others would back down, if only out of fear.

Sunset had felt humiliated and ostracized too, by Celestia. She had also attempted revenge, but the Elements of Harmony had turned Sunset good, just like Princess Luna. Luna had not yet reverted back to evil.

Maybe that was it. Trixie, before her downward spiral, had only been a braggart. So Trixie had far less of a weight on her soul compared to Sunset. Sunset had attempted to steal the Element of Magic, which would leave Equestria helpless against a powerful magical threat, as well as attempted murder. The guilt Sunset would feel would doubtless be greater than Trixie’s. If she was correct, it meant the greater the amount of bad deeds one committed the greater its hold over a pony.

Thinking back to what she had read it made a lot of sense from that point of view. ‘The Alicorn Amulet corrupts the user the more they use its power,’ Twilight mused. ‘It may be that it’s not the Amulet itself corrupting them, but the weight of their own misdeeds. Sunset made mention of a ‘he’ before in regards to the Amulet. It’s not like I asked Trixie about the Amulet before Zecora put it away, so it may very well be possible that there is a consciousness attached to the Amulet, promising great power in return for their cooperation. Or maybe just stirring up their fears and doubts and offering to sooth them by picking away at their morals until they’re eventually unrecognizable as the pony they used to be.’

It was all just theory, and she had no idea if she was right. She threw off the earmuffs she had on. “Guess it can’t be helped. I’m going to have to fight for real.”

In the back of her mind she thought about how she would explain away Sunset’s injuries if that was the route she took. ‘Well… Sunset did say she wanted to assist me in fighting some monster if it meant helping to convince Celestia of her good intentions. A little lie can’t hurt, if it helps them to mend their relationship.’ She didn’t have time to dwell on it any more. Sunset had finished recovering.

Sunset’s eyes were a little bloodshot. “Don’t mock me, Twilight Sparkle!” She lifted her hoof to the sky, and there was a rumbling of thunder as she gathered several clouds together.

Twilight’s eyes widened as she saw the yellow glow building up in the clouds above. ‘A shield?’ she asked herself. ‘Teleporting?’ She didn’t want to test it. Her shield might not stand up to such focused electricity, and lightning could have a high chance of scattering.

After a moment’s more thought she got a mental image of Sunset’s earlier spell. Lifting up the earth from the ground she made a barrier around her, blocking herself from view.

“Hmph!” Sunset said dismissively. “Idiot! Like a small piece of earth is gonna save you!” She spread her two front hooves out, then swiftly slammed them downward. Countless bolts of lightning descended from the sky, destroying the area around Twilight and scorching the ground black. Several fires broke out, but with a quick flash of her horn they were put out.

“Twilight!” Applejack cried out, her mouth hanging open.

“Hey!” Rainbow cried out, smacking her in the back of the head. “Have a little faith in her. Twilight knows what she’s doing.”

Applejack gave her a quick look, then turned back to the battlefield. “Well, I don’t see her.”

Fluttershy was cowering in the edge of the barrier farthest away from the battle. Pinkie Pie saw her distress and walked over to her, snuggling her close. “It’ll be okay, Fluttershy. Like Sunset said about herself, it’ll take a lot more than that to put Twilight down.”

Sunset slowly scanned the area. “Where are you, Twilight?” she said in a sing-song voice. “I know you’re still there. Come on out.”

As if in response to her call a small patch of ground began to stir, and Twilight came out of the hole, a small shield surrounding her.

“Twilight!” Applejack said again, happier this time.

“I told ya so!” Rainbow said triumphantly. “There’s no way Twilight’s gonna lose.”

“I sure hope so.”

Rarity was gently tapping her hoof onto the ground. She believed in Twilight’s skills, but she wasn’t as confident as her friends. Even if Twilight could reduce Sunset to a smudge on the ground she wouldn’t do it. She wouldn’t be able to bring herself to use her full strength on someone she considered a friend.

“So… you’re a slave to the sun, huh?” Sunset said smugly. “Well, let’s see how the sun really feels about you. It cares nothing for you, just like the one that controls it.” Sunset summoned a magnifying glass as big as her.

“Gah!” Twilight cried out, seeing the concentrated light coming towards her rapidly. She just barely jumped out of the way, sure that she had lost the edge of her tail. She opened her wings, taking to the air and dodging as Sunset kept trying to aim for her. When she felt she had an opening she turned towards the magnifying glass and aimed a blast at it.

“Not good enough!” Sunset said sharply, summoning a mirror this time. The blast reflected off the mirror, heading right back toward her.

Twilight folded her wings quickly, descending right before the redirected spell hit her. She opened them again, continuing to dodge the magnified sunbeams.

All of a sudden she heard a cry of “Twilight, below you!” from one of her friends.

Twilight glanced beneath her, and her heart skipped a beat. Sunset was aiming the magnified sunbeam right at the mirror, trying to catch her off guard. She didn’t have Rainbow Dash’s level of skill, so stopping mid-air or doing a fancy maneuver didn’t seem in the cards. She would use what she did best: with a flash of her horn she vanished just as the beam was about to hit her, reappearing on the ground a few feet away.

Sunset clapped. “Very good, Twilight. You’re doing decently so far. What say we up the ante?” With a flash of her horn several dozen more mirrors appeared.

Twilight gulped. They would reflect all over the place, making it all but impossible to dodge. The beam would take up too much of the open space around her. Her mind kicked into overdrive. Attacking the mirrors themselves would be pointless, as they’d just reflect her magic, and there were too many of them anyway. Attacking the magnifying glass Sunset was using to increase the power of the sun would be similarly wasteful. In that case, the obvious solution was to cut off the source of her power.

“Let’s see you dodge this!” Sunset screamed, moving the light towards one of the mirrors.

In her mind Twilight thought Sunset was being reckless. Sunset was smart like her, but she didn’t know if even she could calculate the trajectory of all the reflections. One stray mirror, and Sunset might very well fry herself. It was another reason to stop this part of the battle now.

With a glow from her horn she focused on the clouds left over from Sunset’s lightning storm, stretching them out and gathering ones in the distance, blocking the light of the sun completely and rendering them all in shade.

Sunset looked above her, closing her eyes as she smirked. “I could easily get rid of this cloud cover, but I think I’ll just dispense of this trick and move on. After all, I wouldn’t want to hit myself with my own attack.”

‘So she did figure out the danger,’ Twilight thought. ‘So what will her next plan of attack be? I can’t keep playing defense like this, but I really don’t want to attack Sunset, either. Isn’t there something, anything, I can do to get her to remove the Amulet?’ Nothing sprang to mind.

Sunset rubbed her chin. “Hmm, what should I use to destroy you? Well, should I continue to be fancy and use the environment? Nah. I’ll defeat you with my own magic. It will end this for sure. You ready?” Spreading her magical wings she took to the air.

Twilight’s hooves scraped along the ground as she spread her front legs and raised her head. Unfurling her own wings she jumped up, flapping her wings until she was even with Sunset, a resigned look on her face. She kept trying to think of some way out of things without hurting Sunset, but it seemed to be impossible.

Sunset shot a beam toward her, and Twilight summoned a magical shield in front of her. As it dispersed around the shield there was a popping noise and Sunset vanished.

“Behind you!” Twilight quickly looked behind her, but saw nothing. She felt cold as she heard the sound of magic building up above her, moving the shield above her. She felt herself being pushed toward the ground by Sunset’s beam. It was too much. She teleported again to the ground a few feet away. The shield dissipated and the beam hit the ground harmlessly. She quickly looked behind her, then up to see Sunset Shimmer floating there.

“Why so timid? I mean it’s not like I’m about to do THIS.” She shot a blast towards Twilight.

Twilight went to put up a shield when she suddenly felt a pain in her side as Sunset teleported, tackling her back legs first, firing a blast after her as she skidded. She didn’t have enough time to react.

Sunset frowned as Applejack suddenly came in, grabbing Twilight and jumping out of the way.

“T-thank you, Applejack,” Twilight said, a little shaken.

“No problem, Twilight,” she responded.

“She’s good.” She clutched her side, rubbing it. Nothing was broken so she just needed a few moments to recover. “I thought we were only going to use magic, but it seems Sunset isn’t afraid to get physical. I can’t beat her in that department. I never was very active like you or Rainbow Dash.”

“Twilight,” Applejack said seriously, “I know ya don’t want ta hurt her, and I understand yer feelings on the subject, but she really is tryin’ ta kill ya. If ya keep hesitating like this she’s gonna succeed one of these times. Fer now focus on defeating her. If ya can knock her out then we can work on finding a loophole in the Alicorn Amulet’s protective magic.”

Twilight took a deep breath. “I know, Applejack. I just… it’s hard to attack someone I see as a friend. It would be like if I had to fight any of you. I know that these are just lies planted in her head by the power of the Amulet. She’s basically an innocent victim.

“I’ve been straining my brain like crazy trying to think of some way out of this without harming Sunset. I keep saying I’m gonna be serious, and I’ll do what it takes to protect everyone, but… I just haven’t been able to bring myself to do so.” She took a deep breath. “I’ll have to go at her like I mean business. Otherwise, as you said, I’m gonna wind up dead.”

Twilight thought back to her visit to the past from Zecora’s potion, when she got to see the actual battle between Celestia and Luna. She could understand now how difficult it had been for Celestia to attack her sister. But in the end she had done what had to be done to protect Equestria.

Sunset Shimmer had an amused expression as she saw Twilight walking toward her, her horn glowing slightly as she gazed determinedly at her. “So you do have a bit of fighting spirit after all. That’s good. But let’s make sure we don’t have any interference, hmm?”

Applejack let out a surprised cry as she began floating, wrapped in a red aura as Sunset turned her into a ball and threw her hard at her other friends, knocking all of them down. “Strike!” With a quick flash Applejack turned back into a pony. Waving her hoof in the direction of the shield it changed in appearance. “Now it’s nice and solid. No more coming out for you to interfere.”

“Guys!” Twilight cried out. All of them appeared to be stunned.

“We…we’re okay, Twilight,” said Applejack, one eye open. “Just go show her what for.”

“Sunset Shimmer! You go too far.” The shine of her horn increased in intensity. “I told you to leave them out of this.”

“Good! Good! Stop your hesitating and fight me like you mean to kill.” She teleported behind Twilight again, only to see her not there.

“Up here!” Twilight said angrily as she flipped, giving Sunset a hard kick to the top of the head and sending her plummeting back to the ground. The automatic spell placed on the wings stopped her just before she hit.

As Sunset rose up she blinked as she rubbed her head. “Hmm. Interesting. I wasn’t expecting that. That actually hurt a little. Maybe you will be good for a little fun after all.”

The two of them continued shooting energy blasts and teleporting around, trying to get an edge.

As time went on Twilight felt like something was off in her fight with Sunset. Sunset claimed that she was there to end her life, but it didn’t feel that way to her. Of course if she took most of the things thrown at her head-on she very likely would die, or at the least be heavily injured, but Sunset’s attacks just seemed… weak.

She thought back to what Trixie had done with the power of the Amulet. She stole Pinkie’s mouth, created a gigantic dome, fused two ponies together… powerful stuff for sure. If Sunset truly was coming at her with lethal force then why didn’t she, Twilight, have to work harder to stay alive? If anything, Sunset’s attacks were mostly for show. They looked impressive on the surface, but were easily manageable.

Twilight stared at Sunset hard, trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle. The Amulet was supposed to corrupt the user the more they used it, but it seemed Sunset was trying less and less in their battle. Sunset appeared confident on the outside, but on the inside she could practically hear Sunset screaming for help. Faced with the reality of the situation it seemed Sunset really didn’t want to go through with murdering her, even if she was deceived into believing it would ‘save her’ from Celestia’s ‘brainwashing.’

Sunset’s resolve was weakening. She felt that she could possibly talk Sunset down with one more good push. All she needed to do was get Sunset to remove the Amulet. In considering the best way to get Sunset to do that one simple solution presented itself to her. If Sunset’s doubts were as heavy as they seemed then why not let Sunset succeed in her goal? Once Sunset was faced with following through on her misguided goal she was sure Sunset’s guilt would be enough to get her to back down.

Of course she had no intention of actually dying. She smirked a little. She always was a quick learner at duplicating spells she’d seen, and this one was most appropriate given the circumstances.

Blasts flew down at her from above, and Twilight hopped back and forth, dodging them. With magic she lifted up a piece of earth under her hoof, making a show of tripping. She looked up into a beam of energy heading straight for her, her face set and her horn glowing.

There was an explosion. Fluttershy gasped. A bead of sweat came down Rainbow’s face, but she believed in her friend.

Sunset glared down at the cloud of smoke covering the ground, sharpening her senses. She looked around the area, looking for where Twilight had teleported to this time. She knew Twilight wasn’t that weak.

As the smoke cleared Sunset gasped. Twilight was down for the count in the middle of the crater, her coat burned away on her back. Sunset blinked. “I… I got her?” She felt a twinge in her stomach. “No, I… I actually did it?”

“No!” Applejack slammed her front legs into the ground. “This can’t be!”

“Twilight…” Rarity looked away.

Pinkie’s mane deflated, her lip trembling. “No…”

Rainbow slammed her hooves against the barrier, but it was no good. She couldn’t get through. “Darn it! Darn it! Break! Break!” Tears were streaming down her eyes, her strikes getting weaker and weaker.

It all felt unreal as Sunset landed, approaching the body. Each step felt like an eternity, and her legs trembled the whole way there.

She stood over Twilight’s body. There was no sense of happiness. She felt numb, in disbelief that it had been so easy.

She collapsed to her knees, her head in her front hooves. Tears came down her eyes. “I… I’m sorry, Twilight.” She had never felt so horrible in her life as she did then. “I… I didn’t really think you would die.” It was a necessary evil, but that didn’t make it any easier to take.

“What… what do we do now?” Fluttershy asked.

Applejack let out a heavy breath, pushing her hat over her face.. “We fight,” she said simply. “We ain’t got no other choice.”

Sunset was feeling lost and confused. Twilight was gone, but where did she go from here? She knew Celestia was to arrive sometime soon, but she didn’t know if she was in any fit state to fight.

“It hurts, doesn’t it, Sunset?”

Sunset quickly turned her body as she heard the familiar voice. “Twilight?” she said, confused. She turned back to the body in the crater, and it disappeared. She turned back to Twilight. “Wait, but… how?”

Twilight winked. “Duplication spell. I have you to thank for that one. Not bad for a first attempt, huh?”

The five in the barrier let out sighs of relief. Twilight was just fine.

“You’re alive!” Sunset cried out in joy, a big smile on her face.

Twilight looked at Sunset with some pity. There was such a look of relief in Sunset’s eyes it was clear her true self didn’t wish to continue this course of action.

“Sunset, it’s time to end this!” Twilight said, half scolding and half begging. “We shouldn’t be fighting. You’ve made it obvious you don’t want things to go on this way. Throw away the Alicorn Amulet now and let’s be friends again. You haven’t yet done anything unforgivable, so why don’t we start over and forget this happened?” She put a hoof out towards Sunset, hoping against hope that Sunset would find her inner strength to break the curse upon her.

Stardust was a little annoyed at Twilight’s deception. Her motive was obvious, but the guilt bubbling up inside Sunset was only going to strengthen his hold on her. Her grand plan was just going to backfire on her. He didn’t think he had to interfere yet.

Sunset caught herself, disliking the rush of emotions inside of her. When she thought she had really killed Twilight she had felt upset, but she thought she could get her emotions in check with a little time to process things. Seeing Twilight alive and well just made it worse. She had already experienced killing Twilight once. Did she have it in her to do it a second time?

The joy and serenity slowly left Sunset’s face, her eyes hidden by her mane. “No. No no no!” She shook her head. “No! You… you can’t be alive! I have to save you! I already resolved myself to do whatever it took to help you!

“Y-y-you… y-you… you you you you…” Her voice was trembling along with her body. Suddenly she glanced up, screaming. “You can’t be alive! YOU HEAR ME? YOU HAVE TO BE DEAD! Even if I have to sacrifice my happiness and my very life I’ll rescue you from Celestia’s control! That’s what it means to be a good friend!”

She let out a tortured yell as she gathered magic in her horn. Tears were streaming down her eyes. “Now… please… just stop resisting.” Muffled sobs gurgled out. “Just … just let me kill you.”

Twilight’s mouth hung open slightly, her own heart aching and feeling like it was being ripped in half. Sunset was truly convinced she was doing the right thing, and thus suffering deep inside.

What was she supposed to do now? She had hoped that seeing her ‘corpse’ would be sufficient to get through to Sunset, but it only seemed to harden Sunset’s determination to see her dead. She really didn’t want to battle, and it seemed clear Sunset didn’t want to either. Without the Elements to purge the darkness in Sunset’s heart was her only choice really to engage in a death match with someone she considered a friend?

Fluttershy put a hoof on the barrier, tears coming down her own eyes. Even though Sunset was doing something horrible she had never wanted to give someone a hug more.

The others were more restrained, but they understood how hard it had to be for Twilight more now. Somewhere inside Sunset’s real self had surfaced, only to be restrained again.

“Yeep! Ah!” Twilight cried out. Sunset was being relentless now, shooting blast after blast at her endlessly. She barely had time to dodge, much less think.

On one of her shots Sunset’s attack managed to skim her side, distracting her for a second. Sunset teleported on top of her, flying back hooves first and knocked her into the ground, once more shooting a large blast at her.

Twilight barely had time to register the attack coming towards her before it was right in her face. There was no time for her to use magic. She closed her eyes tight, hearing her friends calling out her name. They couldn’t help her now. And she hadn’t been able to help Sunset either. It was heart wrenching.

A large explosion enveloped the area, covering it in dust as Twilight’s friends each screamed out her name again.

Sunset Shimmer sighed, a hoof on her head as she panted slightly. Her eyes were dead. “It is done. Twilight is no more. Equestria is one step closer to being saved.”

Twilight felt unharmed for some reason. Had Sunset’s attack really just been for show like she had thought earlier? Her body felt strangely heavy, like something was on top of her. She opened her eyes a crack, having difficulty seeing through the cloud of dust around her.

As the dust cleared all of them gasped. On top of Twilight was Spike, who had taken the attack.

“S-SPIKE?” Said Twilight, her eyes going wide in surprise. “W-what are you-”

Spike was panting, one eye closed. “I… I was worried, so I… I came to watch the battle.”

His eyes closed for a moment, before he opened them again. He grimaced, a strained whine escaping him. “Unbelievable. That her spell… could do this much even… even to a magic-resistant dragon.” His eyes closed completely as he lost strength, his weight fully on top of her before rolling off her onto his stomach, revealing the scales on his back all gone and the skin looking pitch black from the burns.

“S-Spike! Spike…” Her stomach felt like it had worms in it. She could barely get the words out. Her brain felt like jelly, unable to process the scene in front of her. Tremors went through her body, tears forming in her eyes and traveling down her face.

Spike had been her partner for the longest time. He had always been there for her even during her worst times. How could she have let this happen?

He let out a mirthless laugh. “H-h-how pathetic. I… I’m… sorry I couldn’t do more. Please, Twilight. You… have to… win.” He coughed, his breathing getting slower. “Don’t… ever… forget… your number… one…assis… tant…” He let out a sigh as his eyes closed and his head fell to the ground.

“Now that’s more like it,” Stardust said to himself.

Chapter 12: Shattered heart

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Ponies were whispering in hushed voices around the shield Sunset had created. The commotion had drawn their attention, curiosity drawing them to see what was going on.

“Who is that mare?”

“She can fight evenly with an alicorn?”

“She’s wearing that same thing Trixie was wearing a few years ago.”

“Spike is down! Is… is he dead?”

“I don’t know.”

“This is bad! Do you think Twilight can win?”

“Of course! Well… maybe. She did need Spike to shield her.”

“It never ends! Something is always attacking us.”

They didn’t think they could do anything to help, and getting in the way of such a high-level magic contest would only end in disaster. The best they could do was stay out of it and hope Twilight could win.

Twilight was at a loss. She felt light-headed. She kneeled down, cradling Spike’s body, quietly wailing, “Spiiiiike.” She knew Sunset was above her, able to strike her down, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. Her heart was so heavy that fighting was the last thing on her mind.

She had been naïve. When push came to shove she hadn’t been able to act like her mentor, to do what needed to be done. Had Spike not intervened it would be her that was dead, and Sunset would be free to do what she pleased.

“It’s my fault,” she croaked out, shaking slightly as she took a shuddering breath. “It’s all my fault. If I had only tried harder…” Her eyes clenched shut. “You wouldn’t have had to sacrifice yourself. I… I would have saved the day like I always did.

“OH, SPIKE!” Her voice cracked. “Don’t leave me!”

Sunset hovered in the air, her conscious mind in a haze. Her unconscious mind noticed the cries of the rest of Twilight’s friends, and made the barrier passable again. They all crowded around him, crying, encouraging him to wake.

She slowly sank down to the ground, barely conscious of doing so. When she landed her legs wouldn’t support her weight, and she sank to the ground. She felt sick, like she might puke. Her eyes were wide as saucers, her breathing heavy and ragged. “W-what have I done?” Her voice trembled. “I… I killed an innocent. I killed…”

“You played around too much, Sunset!” Stardust said sharply. “And now look what happened! This is your fault! If you had been serious from the beginning like you were supposed to Spike would still be alive!

“Twilight should have gone peacefully, with one quick shot. Now, however, you’ve caused her to suffer. Her heart has shattered.”

Sunset swallowed hard, a lump in her throat. “I… I… I…” She tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come. Her own heart felt like it had shattered. Her head flopped down toward the ground, heavy with her crime. “I… I can’t. I’m done.”

She began reaching up toward the amulet, but he stopped her. “Just what do you think you’re doing, Sunset?”

“I’m done,” she said again, her feelings going numb. “I… I took the life of someone uninvolved with my struggle. I’m… I’m not worthy of this power.” Her vision blurred. “I don’t deserve to be your host. I’m just stupid worthless Sunset, as usual.”

Stardust mentally grinned, immensely satisfied by this turn of events. Sunset had still been resisting him a bit, but that was over now. She had lost all will to fight. The disconnect between her morals and her actions had set her heart aflame with guilt and terror. It would surely consume her if left unchecked. And that was where he came in. All she needed was an excuse, some way to justify her behavior.

His true power of corruption was simply to feed others ways not to take responsibility for their actions, thus growing selfish and hardening their hearts to endure. By disregarding all but their own will and objectives a pony could grow truly strong. As soon as they dropped that pesky conscience that held them back, that is.

“Sunset,” he said gently in his sympathetic voice, barely suppressing his glee. “If you stop now you’ll negate everything you’ve set out to do, and Spike will have died for nothing. All you will have accomplished is destroying Twilight inside.”

“B-but… I…”

“It’s maddening and unfortunate, but… sometimes… casualties will occur in the line of duty. It’s just a fact of life. It will hurt when it happens, but you must let it go, and move on.”

Sunset didn’t know how to reply to that. Stardust thought it was a good thing HE did.

Imitating her voice he whispered into her mind, once more masquerading as her own thoughts. ‘I have to… I have to keep going.’

Sunset was uncertain. Could she really keep going on, especially when she felt like this?

‘Why? Why did this have to happen? I was so close to bringing Twilight true peace.’

It would have been peaceful for her. Twilight would have been freed from all her pain and despair.

‘But Spike… he… that dragon got in the way!’

A brief anger flared up inside her, immediately followed by guilt. How could she be thinking such ill of the dead?

‘If only he hadn’t gotten in the way! Twilight would be safe, untouchable by Celestia. He… he’s probably under Celestia’s control as well. She must have programmed him to defend Twilight no matter what. Celestia’s monstrous antics rear their heads again!’

Her anger was stronger now, and she felt strength returning to her as she stood up.

‘And even if he’s not being controlled by her can he really call her a friend, when he deliberately prolonged her suffering? I'm the hero here! I’m trying to rescue Twilight! How could he jump in the way, knowing what it would do to her?’

Sunset was glaring now, the jewel flaring up along with her eyes.

‘Look at them, all bawling over him. He’s no friend of hers as far as I’m concerned! I have to complete my objective before Celestia arrives. There’s no other way! It’s more crucial now than ever that I do so quickly, to spare Twilight any more pain.’

She stomped towards the group. “Get up, Twilight!” she said harshly. “Now! We have unfinished business!” Twilight seemed to ignore her, and that wouldn’t do for the future ruler of Equestria. The aura in her horn grew large. “If you want to play I’ll do what I have to do, even if your back is turned.”

Applejack and Rainbow Dash quickly jumped up, standing between Sunset and Twilight.

“Not on your life!” Rainbow said darkly.

“Hmph!” Sunset said dismissively. “If I have to go through you to get to her then I’m prepared to. Sometimes one has to make sacrifices in order to advance.”

Twilight shivered at Sunset’s words, teleporting in front of her friends and pushing them behind a shield. She would not lose any more of her friends, and she could no longer show Sunset any mercy. She didn’t intend to kill Sunset, as she still hoped to free her from the Amulet’s control, but she had to focus on the situation in front of her. Whatever came next, how Celestia would react to all this, was unimportant.

“Awww, does it hurt, Twilight?” Sunset laughed cruelly. “It really shouldn’t. That freak was no pal of yours.”

Twilight went stiff, an eye twitching. “Excuse me?”

Sunset shrugged. “He was a fool. A baby entering into a contest for powerful ponies? He even pathetically threw himself in the way of my attack. What a worthless sacrifice, as all will came to naught. If you ask me that pitiful loser of a dragon deserved what he got.” She began to laugh, the jewel flashing.

Twilight was feeling light-headed again. Any lingering sadness vanished, to be replaced by a seething rage. That Sunset was being controlled to say those sorts of things ceased to matter. She wasn’t going to sit by and just allow anyone to mock Spike, not when he had tried to so hard to help her. She was only alive because of his noble deed.

An eye closed, and her head sank down as her horn began to glow a bright red. Her power felt like it was surging out of control. She was panting like she had just run a marathon. “P-please,” she said to her friends. “Y-you have to get away from me.” Both eyes closed as she grimaced.

“B-but Twilight,” Applejack started, before letting out a yelp of surprise. The tie she used to hold her ponytail had turned into tree bark.

“I… I can’t… control it…” Her horn flashed continuously, changing things around her, much like her entrance exam to Celestia’s school so long ago. Trees turned into candy canes, patches of dirt began levitating.

Applejack and Rainbow Dash quickly backed up, before helping their other friends get to a safe distance behind Sunset’s shield spell.

“Twilight…” Fluttershy futilely reached out a hoof, wishing she could go comfort Twilight.

A large red ball of power surrounded Twilight. “Fo… cus,” she spat out through clenched teeth.

Celestia’s words rang in her head. Shortly after her ascension Celestia had warned her of the dangers of becoming an alicorn. “Your power is far greater now, Twilight, and with greater power comes even more risks.”

“Risks, Princess?”

“Do you remember your entrance exam? What happened after Rainbow Dash’s sonic rainboom?”

“Vaguely. It’s a bit of a blurry memory. When my magic surged out of control the next thing I really remember is you helping to calm me down. You did tell me about the effects. Spike grew giant, I levitated the examiners, and my parents turned into potted plants.”

“Exactly. Over the years you’ve tamed that power through study, but as an alicorn it is even more imperative that you keep your emotions in check. If your magic explodes out in anger, and surges outside of your control, then you can pose just as much a risk to your friends as your enemies.”

Twilight recoiled slightly.

“Keep in mind what you might destroy if you lose control.”

She lifted her head up sharply to the side, then to the other, trying to contain the rising tide threatening to engulf everything she knew.

Sunset watched with interest. She snickered. “What poor control of your magic. Your feelings are meant to aid you, but they’re ruling you.” Her grin expanded. This was a perfect chance to test her magic. She could kill Twilight anytime, but she wanted to crush the prissy princess. She wanted Twilight to feel her own helplessness. She should have been the one to have this power from the start.

“Hey!” she said loudly. “If you can’t control your magic the only way to bring things back into balance is to release it, right?” Twilight looked slightly over at her, still panting and her eyes half closed. “Well, here’s your target right here.” She lifted a hoof, making a circle around her chest.

Twilight jerked her head away, not wanting to listen. She was angry at Sunset, but she didn’t want to put her friends in danger.

Stardust was pleased with the evolution of Sunset’s hatred. At this point she was almost exactly like her old self. Now she was facing down Twilight once again, but this time there would be a different outcome. After all, Sunset had removed the Elements of Harmony from the Equation. He could just sit back and watch from here.

Sunset was impressed. Twilight looked under less pressure now. The things that had transformed were turning back to normal. She was already mastering her emotions. However, that just wouldn’t do. She wanted Twilight to go ballistic. It was the only way she’d fight for real, no holds barred. “Something wrong, Twilight? You don’t want to fight? Well, I guess it can’t be helped. I’ll just have to force you to. By the time I’m done your friends will be a smoldering pile just like that worthless lump of a dragon. Make sure you say your farewells quick.” Her horn began to glow as she turned toward Twilight’s friends, the shield around them vanishing.

Twilight’s head immediately snapped back to Sunset, rage burning inside her limbs and mind, drowning out the voice of reason inside her. Her eyes began to glow white with power.

Fluttershy looked around at the dissolving shield, and began to shiver. “W-we’re all gonna die!”

Rarity clutched Spike harder. She was sitting down on the grass, him on her lap. It was probably wishful thinking on her part, but she thought she could feel an ever so faint thump. She didn’t trust herself to believe it. With all that was going on she could easily be mistaken. It might even be the sound of her own heart. But if there was even the slightest chance, then that was enough for now. “It’s going to be all right, Spike. I believe in you. And I believe in Twilight too.” Tears formed in her eyes as she gave him a kiss. “I love you, Spike. You hear me? I love you! So please… please… if you’re still in there… then stay alive. Stay alive for all of us.”

Twilight couldn’t contain the power anymore. It was a raging inferno clawing and scratching to get out. If she didn’t release it in some way she felt like her own body would be destroyed. A gigantic glow came from her horn, and she launched it towards Sunset.

“Oh, wow!” Sunset said, feeling a sense of ecstasy. “Now that’s what I call power! Maybe she’s finally taking me seriously. But, ultimately,” she vanished, appearing on the opposite side of Twilight, “such a large attack is slow.”

The attack hit the shield around Ponyville that was still up. There was a cracking sound, but ultimately the shield held. “So naughty, Twilight! You’re lucky the absorption spell I tacked on that shield was designed to draw power from the rest of the shield in order to buffer the impact of such a powerful spell, otherwise you would have destroyed half of Ponyville.” She shrugged, grinning and chuckling as she shook her head. “And you think I’m the bad one here?”

Twilight barely heard her, her mind still swirling in her negative emotions of anger and grief.

Sunset took to the air. Her shield spell wouldn’t hold under such powerful spells fired repeatedly.

Twilight flew up a little bit, firing again and again.

***

Celestia let out a gentle laugh. She was having a morning tea and breakfast. Twilight had said she had a surprise waiting in Ponyville. She wondered what it was. Given how long she had lived and what she had seen she felt that, personally, very little could surprise her. Nevertheless, she would go and see what her student had cooked up. It was always a pleasure to get away from the castle for a little bit and be treated mostly like just another pony.

Four of her royal guards were patrolling around the room. “You boys work so hard for me,” she said serenely. “I think you should take a little break and have some tea as well.”

“Yes, ma’am!” they replied.

“It’s alright to drop the formal attitudes for now.”

“Yes, um, Celestia,” one replied. The four guards sat down, partaking of biscuits and tea.

After swallowing her latest bite of food she said, “Around noon or so I’ll be heading out to Ponyville for a while. Twilight has prepared something special for me. Given that I don’t know the exact nature of this surprise I can’t say when exactly I’ll be back. I’ll trust all of you to hold down the fort while I’m gone.”

The four of them nodded. “Yes, Princess!”

One of them asked, “May I have some more tea?”

“Of course.” She lifted the pot in her aura and tipped it over the cup. “It would be my ple-” Celestia stopped, turning her head left. She had a bad feeling as she looked out the window. She could see beams of light being fired into the sky repeatedly. It was coming from the direction of Ponyville. Given that it was several miles away she couldn’t make out what exactly was being fired at, or why.

Focusing her senses she could just feel it was Twilight. Such magnificent power could only come from her. And she would never do such a thing to show off.

The tea began to overflow, soaking the table. ‘Twilight… after all my warnings have you let your magic overtake you? What could have pushed you to that?’

“Princess? Princess? Are you alright?”

“Huh?” Celestia suddenly heard the voices of the guards. She turned back, seeing the tea dripping everywhere. She set the pot down. Bowing her head she said, “My apologies. A situation has arisen in Ponyville, so I must leave earlier than expected. Might I ask you to clean up for me?”

“Of course, Princess Celestia!” All four of them bowed.

She closed her eyes, focusing on the magic within her. A yellow aura surrounded her, and then with a flash she was gone.

Chapter 13: The power of darkness

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Twilight was panting. The explosive burst of power had all but faded. The large sphere of magic was much smaller, and her horn kept flickering like it might go out at any second. Her rampant emotions had settled somewhat, her power back under her control.

Sunset was hovering in the air, unharmed. She slowly shook her head. “Oh, Twilight. I expected so much more out of you. For all your posturing and grandstanding all you did was waste your precious energy. You were so lost in your emotions you just fired at random, not even thinking about where you were shooting. Had you been in control of your emotions and your powers you would have used other spells to try and assure you’d at least hit me once.

“I’m quite disappointed, actually. I was hoping to get a real challenge out of you, but I suppose this is all I get.” Turning so she was facing downward she raced to the ground, landing and kicking up a cloud of dust. Her amusement was gone, replaced by a determined frown. Her eyes narrowed. “It really is a shame about Spike, but I never intended for him to get involved in the first place. That was his choice.” Twilight growled. “You’ve exhausted yourself. You have nothing left. If you stop resisting right now I promise your friends and Ponyville will be safe. That’s my offer. Take it or leave it.”

Twilight did get angry at Sunset’s mention of Spike, but it was quickly drowned out by a sense of fear. Whether she wanted to admit it or not Sunset was right: She had exhausted herself and been reckless with her magic. Her stamina was almost all gone. And with Spike incapacitated or dead she had no way to get in touch with Princess Celestia. If she didn’t do something quick she was going to die.

She stared at Sunset for a short while, before closing her eyes. The aura from her horn faded. “Fine, then. Go ahead and do it.”

“What?” “No!” “Twilight, don’t!”

Her friends were calling out to her, but she ignored them. She couldn’t afford to get distracted. She still had enough magic for one good shot. Once she disappeared from sight because of Sunset’s own spell she would gather up every last bit of energy she had. At the last second she would summon something for Sunset to hit, as Sunset needed to believe she had hit her. When Sunset dropped her guard she would teleport right behind Sunset and blast her with every last bit of energy she could muster. Being honest, she had no idea whether that last bit would kill Sunset outright, but at this point she was out of options. There was also the possibility that Sunset would block or dodge her attack. If that happened then she was doomed, but she had to gamble for her future.

“Thank you, Twilight,” Sunset said genuinely, her horn exploding with power much like Twilight’s just had. “It will only hurt for a second. I’m using way more power than is necessary to ensure that.”

Twilight could feel her heart thumping loud in her chest. The tension in her body was so heavy. It was all-or-nothing. The next minute would determine her future… or lack thereof.

Rainbow unfurled her wings. She didn’t care what Twilight thought. She had already lost one of her friends today. She wasn’t going to lose another.

“Goodbye, Twilight!” Sunset tilted her head forward, ready to strike. All of a sudden there was a popping noise, and Celestia appeared between the two.

Her sudden appearance surprised all of them. Twilight opened her eyes, and her heart soared. The princess might know how to stop the Alicorn Amulet. She looked into her mentors concerned eyes, and tears began to come down them. “Princess Celestia,” she said warmly.

Sunset’s eyes went wide, and then they narrowed, rage flowing through her. “Princess Celestia!” Sunset said scathingly. “We end this NOW!” She fired the energy she had built up earlier.

Celestia turned her head at Sunset’s words, and shock went through her. “Sunset Shimmer?” She was so surprised that she was slow to react as Sunset fired at her.

Twilight teleported in front of Celestia, and fired the last bit of her magic right at the tip of Sunset’s spell. She knew she couldn’t match Sunset power for power in her tired state, so she made her blast in a triangle shape, splitting the magic harmlessly around the two of them.

She heard the cries of her friends to her side, and her heart jumped. Sunset’s spell hadn’t hit them directly, but it had crashed into the ground nearby, blowing them all away with the shockwave. They were all laid out on the ground, dazed. Rarity was still holding tightly to Spike. “You… you guys…” Twilight felt a dagger in her heart.

“Tsk!” Sunset fumed. “She got in the way. Hmm?” Twilight suddenly flopped to the ground, panting hard. Her head slumped a bit.

“Twilight’s exhausted,” Stardust said happily. “She had to have used up the last of her magic with that. Now you can fight Celestia without interruption.”

‘Sounds like a plan,’ Sunset thought.

Celestia was stunned, still trying to grasp what exactly was going on. Sunset had reappeared through the portal, and her magic was enormous. She had tried to attack her. It seemed obvious that Sunset was what Twilight had been firing at, but why? From what she had heard Sunset had turned over a new leaf. Why was Sunset fighting Twilight? Why go after her?

She got her answer when she spotted the Alicorn Amulet around Sunset’s neck. How had Sunset gotten a hold of it? She didn’t have time to ponder all the why’s of the situation. Sunset was out of control, and had to be stopped. The answers to her questions could wait until then.

“Sunset,” Celestia’s said impassively.

“That’s me!” she said smugly. “The student you left behind. I just schooled your star pupil. Look at her, exhausted and useless, while I stand fresh and ready for more.” Her horn began to glow again. “Would you like to play too? Well, even if you don’t you’re not going to have a choice. I’m going to knock you right off that bloody throne of yours, and avenge all those poor souls you’ve wronged.” Her joyous tone had faded entirely by the end, to be replaced with her anger. The jewel flashed. “This is the end for you, Celestia. I’m going to destroy you and rule Equestria the right way.”

Celestia stared at Sunset, her expression neutral. Sunset had been completely brainwashed by the Amulet.

Twilight was forcing herself up on her hooves, straining her body. “N-no!” she gasped out. “N-no… way! I won’t let that happen.” She was standing now, but her breathing was strained, sweat pouring down her face.

Sunset rolled her eyes. “Be a good girl, Twilight, and stay out of this. Your life is getting prolonged for now. You should enjoy the last hour of your existence.” With a quick flash of her horn and a wave of her hoof the ground under Twilight shifted and she fell back to the ground.

It made no difference to her. Twilight was pushing herself up again. “I… I’m going… to protect my friends!” An itsy-bitsy glow came from her horn, and then an almost invisible spark that traveled a few feet before fading.

Sunset let out a long breath, putting a hoof to her head. “How pathetic. You’re useless now. Don’t you get that? Now stay DOWN!”

Sunset slammed her hoof down, and Twilight felt a weight on her back knocking her back to the ground.

Twilight felt totally helpless. Sunset’s power was too great. She didn’t know if Celestia could take on Sunset alone. She had to do something. Anything! She strained herself with every fiber of her being until she was standing up again. “I need to protect them! I need to protect…”

Celestia put a hoof on Twilight’s back. “It’s alright, Twilight. You’ve done enough. Just take a break and-”

Twilight slapped her hoof away, ignoring her words. “My assistant!” Spike appeared in her mind. “My friends!” Then Rainbow and the rest. “My teacher!” And finally Celestia. “I… I won’t lose anymore! I’m going to protect everyone!” She strained herself to her utmost, but she could barely get a reaction from her horn. “I need more power! More power! Coooommee… oooonnnnn!”

“Twilight, that’s enough!” said Celestia firmly. “You’ll only-” She gasped, shaking. “No!”

“Huh?” Sunset said, confused. The air around Twilight was shimmering, much like a mirage in the heat. The red of her aura began to turn purple, mixed with black and green.

With a cry of rage and pain Twilight’s eyes began to glow a dark green, a purple aura coming out the sides of them. Power was flowing through her. Her anger grew stronger, and her other emotions of loss and grief faded. A sphere of magic swirled around her rapidly like a tornado of energy.

Everyone was staring at Twilight in shock.

“T-that’s…” Rainbow blinked, unable to believe it.

“That’s King Sombra’s dark magic,” Applejack said, her eyes wide.

“Oh, no!” said Fluttershy. “Does that mean Twilight’s gone evil?”

“No!” Pinkie Pie said a bit too quickly. “I… I mean, I don’t think so.”

Stardust heard the words Applejack said, and he was taken aback. “An alicorn… with dark magic?” He wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t seen it. “That Celestia’s prized student would lose herself in darkness…” It was almost too good to be true. It was hilariously ironic to him.

“Huh?” Sunset’s eyes went wide. Twilight had vanished. She heard the swish next to her, but was unable to react in time as Twilight socked her with a hoof, sending her flying. “WHAT?” She barely had a chance to recover before Twilight was on her again. Twilight treated her like a cue ball, hitting her repeatedly.

Sunset growled. “That’s enough!” She spread her hooves out, creating a shield around her. There was an impact as Twilight’s hoof made contact with the shield. They made eye contact. Twilight’s expression was cold and calculating, a far cry from her usual attitude, or even of just a few minutes ago. There was no trace of sadness or any emotion at all.

Sunset grimaced, an eye closing as the multiple impacts began to ache. “Darn you!”

Twilight’s horn burst with energy, firing it down toward her, sending her towards the ground.

“Grrrrr!” Sunset growled. She could hear a cracking sound. Her shield wasn’t going to last. As she reached the ground the spell shattered. She shielded herself with her wings as the blast created a deep crater in the ground.

“W-whoa!” There was no joy in Rainbow’s exclamation. She actually felt a little afraid. They had been there at the Crystal Empire. They had seen what Sombra was capable of. If Twilight was using that kind of magic herself there was no telling what she might do.

Celestia looked up mournfully at Twilight. The mare she knew would never exploit dark magic for her own ends. To her knowledge Twilight had not used it since the incident with King Sombra. She was in the dark about many things, and she needed answers.

***

Cadance was sitting on her throne, talking casually with Shining Armor. Six crystal ponies in armor were patrolling around her for security. Attention was drawn to the entrance as a stallion came running in.

“Princess Cadance!” he shouted.

The six guards quickly gathered around her. “Halt!” said one of them. “State your business!”

He panted for a bit, a bit of panic on his features. “We need you immediately, Princess Cadance! It’s an emergency!” After a few seconds he added, “Maybe. I don’t know.”

Cadance and Shining looked toward each other for a second, before turning back to him. “What do you mean maybe?” asked Cadance, hopping off the throne and walking toward him.

“Ponies are panicking. They… they believe King Sombra might have returned.”

The self-control of the guards broke at that announcement, their crystal coats getting a little less shiny. They quickly looked around them like he might break in at any moment.

Cadance stomped a hoof and said, “Compose yourselves!” To the stallion that had run in she asked, “Why do they believe that? Has he been spotted?”

He shook his head. “No, Princess. But the Crystal Heart is acting strangely. It seems like it’s glow is fading, and it’s far too early for the latest Crystal Fair to restore its magic. Although the Brave and Glorious Spike and alicorn princess Twilight helped us to retrieve the Crystal Heart, and we saw King Sombra’s end with our own eyes, there are many that believe that without the Crystal Heart he’d return again.”

Cadance looked behind her, a serious look on her face. “Shining, come on. We should go see this for ourselves.”

“Of course,” he replied with a nod.

Together the three of them headed toward the spot in the square where the Crystal Heart was kept for all to see, the six guards in tow. Along the way there several ponies approached her, and she could see their terror with her own eyes.

She could hardly blame them for their fear. They had been locked away for a thousand years, subjected to brutal mistreatment. That King Sombra might return at any moment had to be a fear that was present in every one of the crystal ponies.

She did her best to reassure them, but she couldn’t say anything with certainty until she saw things for herself.

As she reached the square she saw a crowd of ponies surrounding the Crystal Heart, and they all began to beseech her for information.

“Quiet, please!” she said gently but firmly. “I need to inspect the Heart myself to see if there is anything wrong with it.”

Though it grew silent in regards to words she could hear the moaning and whimpers of fear in the crowd. She knew she had to solve this issue as soon as possible before the crystal ponies lost heart.

Looking closely at the Heart she saw it indeed seemed to have lost some of its luster. She looked up into the sky, seeing the aurora lights heading off into the distance, spreading beauty through the sky. That seemed to be normal.

After a few minutes Shining said, “Well? Have you discovered the problem?”

Cadance backed up a step from the Heart, turning to face him. “I believe so.”

The attention of all the crystal ponies grew razor sharp.

“I can’t say whether or not it is King Sombra or some other entity, but there is a being with incredible dark magic out and about in Equestria.”

“What do you mean?” Shining asked, as much for himself as for the rest of their audience.

“The Crystal Heart is the Crystal Empire’s greatest means of defense. It’s not quite as powerful as the Elements of Harmony, but so long as the ponies in the empire have light and love in their hearts this Heart will not let dark forces of any kind through it. And yet the Crystal Heart is reacting to something regardless.”

Gesturing toward the sky she continued on. “All of you can see the rainbow trails spreading against the sky, showing that the Crystal Heart is still functioning as it should. The only thing that would stop the spreading of that is extremely strong dark magic. The Crystal Heart is funneling power into trying to squash that dark magic, but the source is so far away that it cannot do so.”

She stared thoughtfully at the Heart for a few moments more. “Shining Armor.”

“Yes, Cadance?” he replied.

“If the Crystal Heart is detecting dark magic of this level it must be dealt with quickly before it can spread.”

“Of course.” He nodded. “Where do we start, though?”

“If one wants to attempt to conquer Equestria the alicorns are the place to start. They’re not anywhere near the Crystal Empire, which leaves only Canterlot and Ponyville.”

Shining felt torn between duty and love. As the former captain of the Royal Guard in Canterlot he knew that Celestia was the central pillar for many ponies. She was the natural choice of those to be protected first. However…

Cadance walked up to him, giving him a nuzzle. “I know exactly what’s going through your mind, Shining. Looking at things from a logical perspective Canterlot would be the place we check first. I know also that, as her big brother, you’re concerned for the well-being of your sister.”

She gave him a kiss. “I’m more concerned for Twilight than Celestia. Don’t forget that Celestia is not the only alicorn in Canterlot. Luna is there too, and the two can fight together. They are also much older and more capable than her. So all in all, we should go to Ponyville first.”

Shining couldn’t stop himself letting out a sigh of relief, glad that Cadance had made the decision.

Cadance unfurled her wings. “Get on quickly. There’s no time to waste.”

Shining jumped up on her back, holding on to her neck. “Let’s go, honey. I’m worried about Twily too.”

Cadance addressed the crowd around them, slowly turning her head to look around at them. “Keep your hearts strong, my faithful subjects. So long as you keep light and joy in your hearts you’ll have nothing to fear from this threat. The protective magic of the Crystal Heart is absolute. Nothing with evil or malicious intentions will be able to pass through the barrier.”

Her own shield spell was based on a similar principle to the Crystal Heart. Shining Armor was more proficient at shield spells than her, but his spell could only block physical matter. On the other side she had to constantly keep her attention focused on the magic or else it would fade, while Shining’s shield could be put in a stand-by mode, only activating when it was necessary to do so.

She could tell the crystal ponies were still afraid, but they were less so than before. “I will return as soon as possible with the good news. Please do not be concerned. We will never allow King Sombra, or any dastardly creature, to conquer this world.”

She crouched slightly before jumping into the air and flapping her wings. When she was a hundred feet in the air she took a deep breath, and then took off in the direction of Ponyville. Shining used his magic to push her from behind, increasing her speed still further.

“Hold on, Twily, we’re coming!” Shining shouted.

***

Sunset was panting slightly at the bottom of the hole. She had to be down at least a hundred feet. Her wings were all but shattered. She had been able to dispel the magic around her, creating tunnels on either side of her.

“What… was that?” she said to herself, then she addressed Stardust. “Hey! Genius! I thought you said Twilight was exhausted. Where is all this power coming from? She was nothing like this before. There is only one of you, right?”

“Of course there’s only one of me, you stupid girl,” he replied angrily. “How many Starswirl the Bearded’s can there be?”

“So how did she suddenly get so much power? She has to have some kind of power amplifier like I do.”

“In a sense you’re right. What Twilight is using right now is dark magic, the same as the ancient unicorn king Sombra.”

“What?” she said in shock. “How would Twilight know that?”

“From what I gathered the two of them had a go at one another when he returned. Dark magic is fueled by anger and fear. The greater the emotions the greater the power one can muster.” He laughed mockingly. “Look what you’ve done. You pushed Twilight’s psyche to the edge, and now she’s even stronger than before. And because that dark magic is tempering and focusing her emotions it’s not like before where she was being reckless with her power.” He laughed again. “Now we’re at the worst-case scenario. Two full-powered alicorns against just one of you and what I can provide.

“You gonna run?”

She could hear the sickening smugness in his tone, and snorted angrily. “Of course not, you daft old coot! That prissy brat is nothing compared to me! I don’t care how strong she gets!” The jewel in the amulet flared brightly. “Anger? ANGER? What does she know of anger? What does she know of pain and despair and losing everything you once valued?”

Reforming her magic wings she gathered her magic, circling it around her as she exploded out of the ground with a yell. “Let’s go, Twilight! You’re finished now!”

Twilight looked back at her dispassionately, surrounding herself with magic as well. The two of them charged at each other, their magic spheres bouncing off one another.

Twilight shot a blast at her, and Sunset teleported out of the way, appearing on top of her, firing as well. Twilight jumped out of the way, shooting at Sunset again. Sunset slammed the attack away with her wing.

Celestia walked over to Twilight’s friends, surrounding them all in a shield. “Shield magic is not my specialty, but this should be enough for now.

“I need to know what’s going on. What caused all of this?”

Pinkie Pie said with a little groan, “Sunset came through the portal now that it’s open again. She returned because she felt bad about her past actions and wanted to make amends with you.”

Celestia’s eyes softened for a moment. “Sunset…” She looked to the side where Twilight and Sunset were still battling, then back to Pinkie. “Go on.”

“I know what it seems like, Princess,” said Applejack, taking her hat off, “but I promise she was being genuine. All of us saw her pain and regret.”

“She was so afraid you wouldn’t accept her she wouldn’t sleep where she thought she might run into you,” said Rainbow, “so we sent her to Zecora’s.”

“And that’s where she found the Alicorn Amulet,” said Fluttershy, hanging her head. “In the beginning of this battle Sunset still seemed like a good pony. She made shields for us so no one else would get hurt, but both her and Twilight changed when…” Her eyes clenched, a few tears coming down them.

“When what?” asked Celestia. None of them seemed to want to look at her, but finally Rainbow pointed toward Rarity. Her eyes turned to the pair, and Celestia’s composure broke. “Spike!” Her legs almost gave out, but she managed to stay upright. “No…”

Rarity gave Spike yet another hug. “Spike jumped in front of an attack meant for Twilight. Sunset’s been tricked into believing that you’re some evil despot and Twilight’s your brainwashed slave. She was trying to take Twilight out to liberate her from your control. Sunset seemed genuinely sorry up until Spike got in the way. Even since then she’s been indifferent to anything other than her goal. She’s mad with power, and Spikey-Wikey had to pay the price for it.” She squeezed tighter, her voice cracking. “Oh, Spikey!” She sniffed, crying over him.

Celestia let out a sigh, and then her face was a mask. You wouldn’t have guessed she had just shown any weakness. “Okay, next question: I notice the five of you are wearing your Elements. Where is Twilight's?”

“Sunset tricked Twilight,” Applejack replied. “She made a fake amulet and took it off when we threatened ta use the Elements against her. When Twilight dropped her guard Sunset took the Element and teleported it away somewhere.”

“That’s not good,” she said in a solemn tone. Sunset was an issue, of course, but not the only threat. She could not be allowed to hold onto the Element of Magic.

“What do we do, Princess?” asked Fluttershy, tugging on her mane.

Celestia was quiet for a short while. “For now, nothing.”

“Nothing?” asked Rainbow. “What do you mean, nothing?”

“Right now their powers are roughly equal, and neither seems able to hurt the other. The source of Sunset’s anger is with me, so if I interfere it will only make things more complicated.”

“Princess?” said Pinkie.

“Yes?” she replied.

“Is Twilight possessed or corrupted like Sunset is?”

Celestia gazed back toward the battling ponies for a few moments before replying, “No. Or rather, I’d say, not yet.”

“Not… YET?” Rainbow asked, unfurling her wings and flying right near Celestia’s face. “What do you mean by that? How does Twilight know this kind of dark magic anyway?”

Celestia sighed. “I was the one that taught it to her before your trip to the Crystal Empire.”

“WHAT?” Applejack said, shocked. “Why in the hay would ya know somethin’ like that, let alone teach it ta Twilight?”

“It was something she needed to see, in preparation for what she was going to be fighting. I thought it might also come in handy, and it did. Twilight needed to use it to get to the Crystal Heart. I never expected it to come to this, though.”

“How long do we have?” Fluttershy asked quietly. “You said she wasn’t corrupted yet.”

“I don’t believe there’s any cause to worry for the time being. Dark magic is fueled by anger and fear. The greater the emotions the greater the power one can muster. Twilight’s fear, Twilight’s anger… they both spring from the same source. I doubt I need to explain what.” All of them glanced toward Spike, then back to her, and nodded.

“Twilight was likely doing all she could to talk Sunset down. Ultimately, it was unsuccessful, and Spike got caught in the crossfire. When that happened Twilight’s emotions caused her magic to surge up much like the first day I met her.

“When that power was all used up Twilight was exhausted, and she used the last of it to protect me. The redirection caused all of you to get indirectly hurt. She realized how much of a threat Sunset is right now, and she wanted to help all of you as her friends. She strained and concentrated, searching everywhere inside her for a little extra strength to help all of you, and she found it.” She glanced at the pair again. “I do not believe that Twilight consciously decided to use dark magic. She’s not the kind of pony that would rely on such an art, even as a last resort.”

Celestia’s horn began to glow yellow, then it turned black and purple. Her eyes went green like Twilights. All of them unconsciously backed up a step. Rarity, who was sitting down, settled for backing her body up. “Dark magic is not inherently evil. Much like the night darkness can be a good thing. That’s why it’s not called evil magic. Dark magic, if used properly, can aid one in battle by shutting down unnecessary emotions and giving one a boost in power to conquer one’s foes.

“If used in short bursts, and only when absolutely necessary, the influence of dark magic will dispel over time. However, if used in excess it will begin to distort the mind. Things like sadness, empathy, and grief will become a thing of the past, and one becomes bitter, enraged, and cold.”

The aura faded, and Celestia let out a sigh. “It can be all too easy to become intoxicated with this power, and rely on your negative emotions to guide you. King Sombra was unable to control this power, and eventually became eternally lost to it.”

They understood better now. “So… what you’re saying is… Twilight is in danger?” Rarity asked.

“Not quite. A battle like this full of personal feelings and with casualties was bound to bring something unpleasant out of Twilight. She’s never experienced true loss before. However, by battle’s end she will drop that power, and her grief will overcome her anger. If Sunset is defeated by then I doubt Twilight will use it again unless in another case where she’s pushed to the edge emotionally. As I said earlier, if used sparingly and in short bursts, dark magic isn’t that dangerous to use.”

“Your Highness,” Fluttershy said, sounding very small, “do you think it will be possible… to save them both? I mean, I know what Sunset did to… to Spike… but she really did just want to make peace with you.”

“I’ll do what I can,” she said comfortingly. She draped a wing over Fluttershy. “I don’t want to lose Sunset either.”

“So, Princess, do ya know of a way to break the Alicorn Amulet’s magic?” Applejack asked.

“Unfortunately, no. The exact workings of the ownership enchantment are unknown to me. For now all I can do is observe. If it looks like one is about to overpower the other or things will become fatal I’ll do what I can to protect the one losing.”

Ten minutes passed, then twenty. Twilight and Sunset kept going back and forth, but neither could do a thing to the other. They were practically invisible the way they kept teleporting around, searching for that key moment of weakness of the other.

“Stop!” Sunset said suddenly.

Twilight complied, but kept a ready stance. “Why should I?”

“Because this is pointless.”

“After everything you’ve done today now you want to quit?” Twilight’s eyes narrowed to slits. “How dare you!”

Sunset shook her head. “No, you dolt. I intend to keep fighting. What I’m saying is that we’re at a stalemate. Attack, teleport, shield. It’s going nowhere. We’re teleporting all around and firing, but we teleport out of the way or put up a shield. And even IF we hit the shield the amount of power we can build up in a split-second is very minor, so there’s no chance of cracking it.”

Twilight didn’t respond.

“So what I’m saying is: let’s end this with one final attack, winner take all. No more tricks or trying to be clever. We both build up our power to its maximum, and whoever is stronger is the one that survives.”

“And… I’m supposed to believe you’re going to adhere to this?” Twilight spat out. “You can’t be trusted, you despicable monster!”

Somewhere deep inside that statement stung. “Hmph! Well, who needs your approval anyway? I’ve become stronger than I’ve ever dreamed. You think I need to rely on trickery when it comes to raw power?” Her horn’s aura grew larger and larger, the dark red casting its light around the area. “Well, Twilight? You game?”

Twilight stared at her for a while, before she glanced over towards her friends. Rarity was still cradling Spike. The crushing weight on her chest returned, and her anger flared. Her horn’s glow similarly grew in intensity, the blackness mixing with the green. “You’re on!”

Sunset smirked. “Excellent.”

All of the watchers looked back and forth between Sunset and Twilight.

Applejack gulped. “W-well, this is it.”

“Yeah,” said Pinkie. “If Sunset really isn’t going to pull any tricks now then the battle is going to end with the next attack.”

Fluttershy hugged Celestia’s leg. “P-Princess,” she started.

Celestia couldn’t afford to look away, but she did respond, “Yes?”

“Y-you really will be able to save them both?”

Celestia’s expression didn’t change, even though she sounded uncertain. “Perhaps. Hopefully this will cause the both of them to burn out their energy. I don’t know if the Alicorn Amulet has a limit to its powers, but the dark magic Twilight is using is tied directly to the amount of anger and hatred one feels in their heart. If both of them exhaust their magic here it will be far easier to resolve this with no more casualties.”

Rarity gave Spike a squeeze, keeping silent though she was burning to say something to the rest of them. She still felt it, the tiny little thump. Spike was still hanging on, likely by just a thread, but hanging on nonetheless. She had been whispering to him, keeping up a steady stream of encouragement. She didn’t know if he could actually hear her, but so long as there was the slightest chance that her efforts were keeping him alive she wouldn’t stop. As long as she could still feel that little beat under her hoof she wouldn’t give up hope.

Celestia looked between Sunset and Twilight. “I don’t know who is going to prevail in this contest, but I’ll do my best to shield the loser or get them out of harm’s way.”

“You ready?” Sunset asked, laughing. Twilight simply nodded. “Then let’s do it!”

As one they both released their blasts.

“Whoa!” Pinkie said, covering her face as she felt the wind whipping up around the attacks.

The two attacks converged, mixing with one another at the nexus.

“W-who do you think’s gonna win?” asked Fluttershy.

“I want to say Twilight,” started Rainbow Dash, “but there’s no way to tell. They look like they’re pretty even so far.”

Stardust was watching the contest, but he was distracted. He was intrigued by all of this, but there was one point of interest he couldn’t overlook. A new option was presenting itself to him. “An alicorn… with dark magic…”

Chapter 14: Betrayal

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Twilight and Sunset were howling their anger, putting all they had into their attacks. The two blasts made slight progress against one another, only to lose ground and remain even.

Stardust was lost in thought, torn between the two extremes. He had found an absolutely perfect host in Sunset. A mare with doubts, an outcast, someone easily swayed, and, of course, a grudge against Celestia. She was everything he would ever want in a grand plan to overthrow Celestia’s regime and create his own in place of it. With the way Sunset had been acting since unintentionally hitting the dragon he had her completely under his sway. Sunset still had a few of her morals left, but for all intents and purposes she was just a puppet moving to his whims. He had no reason to infringe on those morals either. Mindless destruction of Ponyville or taking lives at random wasn’t what he was after. He wanted the respect of the people, not their love. And for that they needed to be alive.

Looking on the other side of the equation was a mare that could quite possibly be his new pawn. Earlier he had been stuck on eliminating Twilight so she wouldn’t get in the way when they fought Celestia, but now he wasn’t so sure. Twilight was an alicorn, so her magic would already be several levels above every unicorn in Equestria. Her capacity to use and channel dark magic so effectively was an unexpected surprise, but it meant that Twilight was not quite as pure as she thought she was. Lost as she was in her emotions it meant that Twilight was weakened mentally. In that state wouldn’t it be simple enough to get into Twilight’s mind the same way he had done to Sunset?

He had dismissed the idea of ever getting an alicorn host, as they all knew about him and would never put him on. Perhaps Luna would have when she was still Nightmare Moon, but now it was too late for that. In the state Twilight was in, dark magic running through her veins, lost to anger, and doing her utmost to take Sunset down… well, it was a much wider opening than he could have ever expected.

He went back and forth in his mind. He needed to decide who the best choice was. He could just stick with Sunset. She was already a slave to his will and had a dislike for Celestia. It was the safest option, without a doubt.

On the other hoof, he could make an attempt on Twilight. It was a huge risk for sure, but if it payed off he would be unstoppable. If he did manage to get Twilight he would have to work quickly to break her mind. He’d have even less time than he’d had with Sunset. In every way Twilight would be more difficult to convert, but she would also be much more efficient than Sunset, being a natural alicorn. If he couldn’t convert her then she would put him away or destroy him, and he would be back in the same position he had been before Sunset had given him this glorious opportunity. It was definitely a high risk, high reward scenario.

The two mares were still raging their battle, neither one of them having a decisive edge. The battle would end with the conclusion of this confrontation. One of them was going to die here, or at least be too injured and exhausted to continue fighting.

The thought of destroying Celestia with her precious student was too richly ironic for him to reject. Of course Sunset had once been Celestia’s student as well, but they had parted on bad terms. He knew that Celestia would fight even Twilight for the safety of everyone else. If she sealed her own sister in the moon for a millennium he had no doubts she’d take on her own student.

Stardust laughed to himself. He always was a gambler, and this would be the ultimate gamble. If he wanted any chance of taking over Twilight then he needed to work on her insecurities and guilt like with Sunset. Sunset had been so helpful planting that seed of darkness, and he just had to show his appreciation for all her hard work.

The glow from Sunset’s horn faded slightly in intensity, and for the first time Twilight gained a noticeable lead that wasn’t immediately countered.

Sunset could feel the reduction in power, and she felt an inkling of fear. ‘Am I… am I being overpowered?’ she thought. ‘But how? How can her anger be greater than mine?’

Stardust laughed, and it seemed to ring in her ears. “Oh, Sunset. Having trouble, are we?”

She growled. ‘I’m glad you’re amused by this. We’re losing! This is a disaster. I… I dragged things out too much, and now we’ve reached the worst case scenario. Celestia is still at full power. Even if we muster up the strength to defeat Twilight we’re doomed. We’re going to fail.” Sunset felt a trace of despair mixing in with her fear.

“Sunset, you are a fool.” He laughed again. “You amused me greatly, but I think it’s time we bring this charade to an end.”

Sunset was trying to keep her focus on her blast, but she was distracted by his words. “W-what are you talking about?”

Stardust sighed, easing his essence into her body to keep up her resistance for her, to get her full attention. “Do you really believe I’ve hit my limit so easily? This has all been just a game to me, and you a wonderful player.” The dark red of Sunset’s magical aura faded slightly, becoming more yellow in the mixing. “Are you waking up yet?”

Sunset felt like a dark cloud that had been obscuring her vision was fading away, her constricted emotions having more room to breathe. ‘W-what have you been doing?’

“You fell for everything I said. You really are pathetic. You’re a mare that deserves everything that’s coming to you.”

‘What are you saying, Stardust? We’ve been working together for the good of Equestria, to overthrow Celestia.” Sunset felt strange, like something was wrong.

“Overthrow her why? What made you decide on that?”

‘I… um… because of…’ She tried to think of a reason, but her sharp anger from earlier was gone. What had she been doing all this time? ‘Because you told me to… and-and that vision…’

“Mere words and an interpretation of Celestia’s actions, and an unverifiable vision in the middle of the night. Didn’t Twilight herself tell you it was just a nightmare from anxiety?”

Sunset felt a chill go down her spine. ‘You!’ she thought sharply. ‘You tricked me!’

Stardust laughed again. “Wrong, Sunset!”

‘Don’t lie to me! You-‘

“ME?” he said, cutting her off. “I did nothing more than use your memories and thoughts against you.”

The yellow of Sunset’s magic grew closer to her natural green, as the attack got steadily closer to her.

“You may not have thought about it consciously, but in your subconscious, in the deepest reaches of your mind, everything I presented to you stemmed from there.”

‘No! You’re wrong!’ Sunset shouted in her mind.

“Am I? Three years of bonding with your human friends, and yet just one vision of them being glad you were gone was enough to convince you they didn’t really love you.”

A tear came down Sunset’s eye, a numb feeling starting to course through her body. ‘I… I…’

“Your dear pony friends spent the day with you laughing and having good times, but you dismissed them too as being terrified of you and acting as well.”

Sunset was starting to pant, panic blossoming now. ‘Y-YOU! You planted those visions in my mind!’

“Guilty,” he said with a snicker. “But Sunset… I only exposed what was in your own heart, nothing more. When you discovered me your mind thought about the power you could receive. You knew there was something else important about the Amulet, but you dismissed it. You threw caution to the wind for the sake of buffing yourself up. Power always comes at a price, my dear Sunset. And the price of my power is to be under my sway and do what I want. The irony of accusing Twilight of being just a mindless pawn was simply delicious.”

His laughter rang through her mind, echoing. A few more tears came down her eyes. ‘You…’ She couldn’t form any thoughts. The horror of what he was saying was as hard to process as when he was first trying to convince her to kill Celestia and rule over Equestria. Beneath it all was the dawning realization that everything she had been doing was for nothing, done under a false pretense. Though she didn’t want to think of it Spike’s burned body appeared in her mind.

“Ah, Celestia,” Stardust pressed on. “I despise her, truly. That’s why I felt so glad when you first put me on.”

Sunset felt like she would have collapsed if Stardust wasn’t keeping her up. She didn’t have the will to fight him. Her magic and body were completely in his control, and she had no means of removing the Amulet from around her neck.

“Deep down, whether you want to admit it or not, you never wanted to apologize to Celestia. Did you?”

Sunset’s eyes clenched shut. ‘N-no… you’re wrong. I came back… I came back…’

“My every avenue for breaking down your mental defenses was built solely on your own thoughts and feelings. You can hide from yourself, but you can’t hide from me. I can see the things you don’t want to. The truth, the real truth, is that you don’t believe you were in the wrong for what you did. You came back… because you felt obligated to, not because you genuinely thought you should.”

Sunset shook her head, trying to ignore his words.

“WHY BOTHER DENYING IT? YOU KNOW IT’S THE TRUTH!”

Sunset’s legs were shaking, unable to form a response.

“You changed in the human world once Twilight knocked some sense into you. You were offered friendship, and became a good pony. You were able to find your footing because of the friends around you that accepted you despite your past misdeeds. A part of you felt it wouldn’t be right to leave this part of your past unaccounted for. After all, a good person doesn’t just do bad things and not take responsibility for them.

“You were still angry at Celestia, though. You thought her methods were inappropriate. If she really wanted you to make some friends then why didn’t she just say so? If she had done that you would have put in the effort just like you did with your school work. And then everything that Twilight has now would have been yours. You would have been the one to wield the Elements of Harmony and stop Nightmare Moon, reuniting the royal sisters. You would have ascended to alicornhood and become a princess. You would have helped countless others. You would be loved and everyone would look up to you.

“If only Celestia had just told you that one thing everything in your life would be grand. Instead, it went the opposite way. You were despised by all for being a smug jerk, you stayed alone wishing for love, you replaced that with self-centered egoism, you turned into a psychotic monster and nearly doomed two worlds, and then when all those negative things were purged from you then you found yourself lost and having to rebuild yourself from the ground up.”

Sunset felt faint; dizzy. Again, she felt like the only thing keeping her up was his essence controlling her. A part of her knew… knew that everything he was saying was the truth.

“You were angry at Celestia, but you couldn’t accept that. You turned into a monster once, the Element of Magic revealing the true you inside. Forced to face your true self, you resolved to turn into a different person. And in trying to hold up to that standard in your mind you began to turn away from your natural feelings. If ‘Monster Sunset’ was angry at Celestia, then ‘Good Person Sunset’ can’t be angry at her.

“Of course, it’s not a crime to feel anger. Even the best and closest of friends can feel anger towards one another. Speaking one’s mind and coming to a compromise is supposed to be the best way to enhance one’s bonds with others. You, however, couldn’t accept that. Your anger turned to fear that you were regressing to your past self, and your fear turned into a belief that Celestia could never accept the new you, as being fearful was ‘healthier’ than being angry. And in that fear you searched for a way to ensure the outcome. You didn’t even realize that that was a regressive thought, to search for power to try and get in Celestia’s good books. You tried to prove yourself through an unrelated good deed, rather than simply taking responsibility for your past and apologizing.

“Because you couldn’t accept yourself and truly trust others, you fell right into every trap I threw in your path. And in the end, by trying so hard to prove that you changed, you ironically proved you haven’t really changed at all.”

Sunset’s magic had turned back to its natural green, a faraway look in her eyes. As his influence over her emotions faded she had felt like her mind had cleared, but now a new weight had taken its place.

“All I’ve done is talk. You made the choice to trust me and believe what I said. I haven’t once controlled your actions or forced you to do anything.” He laughed. “You do get what that means, don’t you, Sunset?”

Sunset didn’t answer. She felt she did know, but she didn’t want to face it.

You killed Spike. You caused so much pain for everyone here. And, of course… that even the Elements of Harmony, the most powerful magical artifacts known to pony-kind, couldn’t purge the monster inside of you.” He laughed cruelly.

Sunset was beyond tears. She felt like her very mind and heart were being torn into pieces and stomped into nothingness. “I… I… I’m… a… a monster.” The last word came out in a whisper. Her face had gone deathly pale. She felt like she was alone in a black void.

“Well, Sunset,” Stardust said in mild surprise, “I do believe that you’re actually facing the truth for once in your life. It’s too late for you to go back now. You took an innocent life, which was enough to get you fully under my sway. You were all too eager for an excuse to look away from what you’d done. I just provided that for you. But, in all honestly, I’m actually a little impressed that you’re willing to look at the truth of just how deplorable a being you really are. So… I’ll offer you one last choice.”

“A choice?” she said distractedly. Twilight’s magic was getting dangerously close to her, but it scarcely seemed to matter.

“I still have plenty of power in reserve. I could give you enough strength to overpower Twilight’s spell. Of course, if you did that then Twilight will die. If you refuse my magic I’ll hold you here, and you yourself will die. Those who commit bad deeds must be held accountable for their actions, after all. It’s you or her.

“So… which is it, Sunset? Do you want one last burst of energy?”

Sunset tested her legs, but they were still stuck in place. Images flashed in front of her eyes, of Spike badly injured, Twilight crying over him, the sadness of the rest of them, and the cold looks of everyone in the human world.

Tears poured down her eyes as she shook her head. She had caused so much pain. Even if she could avoid killing anyone else and left through the portal again she couldn’t ever face her human world friends again. Even if others were willing to forgive her for her mistakes, she wouldn’t ever be able to forgive herself. “I… I… don’t.” Her voice cracked.

“You don’t…” Stardust knew that was the answer she would give. She was no less under his control now than before, after all. The fact that everything he was saying was true meant she had no grounds for rebuttal.

Her refusal to save herself factored right into his plans. He could have just cut his power off completely, feigning weakness, but what fun was that? He wanted to drag out her suffering. Even at the end he wanted her to make her own choices, so she couldn’t blame him for anything.

“Aw, Sunset, you should be proud that at the end you finally accepted the truth. It’s been fun, but now it’s over.”

Sunset looked her death in the face. She could feel Stardust’s energy cutting off. She didn’t want to escape this. It was the only thing she deserved, after all. What would be left for her if she did survive? Spike would still be dead. Twilights words came back to her, trying to end the battle. “You haven’t yet done anything unforgivable.”

She hung her head. “I have now.”

Celestia gathered up her magic. Sunset was obviously being overpowered. She had hoped that things would turn out that way. If the magic of the Amulet was drained its influence would likely be weakened as well, making it easier to convince Sunset to take it off. That only left Twilight, and she was sure she could get her student to back down.

From up above all their attention was drawn as a blur slammed into the ground, stirring up a cloud of dust.

“Oh, what now?” Rainbow said indignantly. “What else is gonna go wrong?”

The cloud cleared, revealing Cadance and Shining Armor, both of them panting hard.

“What?” “Huh?” All of them reacted with shock, except for Sunset and Twilight, who were too absorbed in themselves to notice.

“Cadance?” Celestia said, confused. “What are you doing here?”

“We felt a strong dark magic through the Crystal Heart, and came to investigate.”

Shining hopped off her back, turning towards the energy battle behind them. He didn’t recognize the orange coated pony on the one side, but he let out a startled exclamation as he saw the one on the other side. His mouth hung open. “T-T-Twily?”

A tear came to his eye. “S-she’s the source of the dark magic?”

Cadance couldn’t believe it either. “W-what happened to her?” she said harshly. “H-how….”

Sunset’s spell broke completely, and she got swept up in Twilight’s attack.

Celestia came back to herself. She had been so surprised by Shining and Cadance’s sudden appearance she forgot what she was supposed to be doing. She quickly created a shield around Sunset, but she could already feel it cracking. She wasn’t skilled enough with shield spells. “Help me!” she said to the pair.

Neither of them knew what was going on, but they both trusted Celestia. They each added their own shield spells on Sunset, and the combined three shields were enough to deflect Twilight’s last spell around Sunset. The spell continued on before being absorbed into the shield spell around Ponyville that was still up.

Sunset fell to the ground, twitching. She had only been in the middle of the attack for a few seconds, but it was enough to do her a good amount of damage.

Twilight looked unemotionally at the broken mare before her. The battle was over. She had triumphed. Little good it did, though. She didn’t feel satisfied. Nothing would return Spike back to her.

“Twily!” Shining called out, trotting towards her. “Please come back to yourself!”

Twilight heard the familiar voice, and with mild interest turned to look. “Shiny?” she said, a little confused. What was he doing there? The waving energy extending out from her eyes faded. “Cadance?” She noticed her old foalsitter as well. It was nice to see them, but there were still things to do.

Sunset groaned in pain. She was still alive, somehow. She had been protected by something. She sat up slightly, an eye closed and panting. Her body felt wrecked.

“So you survived,” said Stardust. “Oh, well.”

The Alicorn Amulet felt exceptionally heavy at the moment, like it was an iron ball on her soul. She had to get rid of it. It was the root of everything that had happened.

Twilight gasped suddenly, her eyes lighting up with excitement. It made her look much like her true self. “I got it!” Her voice began to be colored with emotion.

“Hey, look at that,” said Applejack. “It sounds like that dark magic really is wearing off.”

“Whoa!” Sunset exclaimed, feeling something pulling at her until she was properly sitting up. Twilight was looking at her, but she couldn’t meet the mare’s eyes. Her front leg began to move by itself towards the Alicorn Amulet. “W-what are you doing?”

Twilight responded, “The Alicorn Amulet can only be removed by the one that wears it. So I think there’s a loophole I can exploit there. If I’m controlling your hoof, then technically you are the one that’s taking it off, hmm?"

Stardust chuckled. “Silly mare. The Alicorn Amulet has no such weaknesses… unless I want it to.”

Sunset put up a weak resistance. She was only too happy to part with the Amulet, but she was simply tired of being controlled for one day.

She was too exhausted to fight, and her hoof grabbed the Amulet against her will. As she began to lift it off she heard Stardust talk to her one last time. “Well, Sunset, I guess this is goodbye. It’s been fun, but now I have a fresh, tasty new host I want to dine on.”

Sunset’s heart jumped. It wanted to take someone else? It had to be Twilight. ‘I have to warn her!’ she thought urgently, but it amounted to nothing. As the Amulet was fully removed and its influence faded completely the last of her strength left her, causing her to collapse. Stardust must have been sustaining her consciousness just he could get out that last stab to her heart.

“Got it!” Twilight said victoriously, the last of the dark magic fading. She lifted the Amulet in her magic, pulling it toward her. She stared at it wordlessly for a few seconds before she hugged herself, gently sobbing. “I did it! I did it, Spike!”

Fluttershy let out a relieved sigh. “It turned out just like you said, Princess Celestia. After the battle her grief did overcome her anger.”

“And both Sunset and Twilight are still alive,” said Pinkie with a little hop.

“I can’t believe that troublesome Amulet had such a simple loophole,” said Applejack, shaking her head. “We could have ended this battle right at the start if we had known that.”

“Nah,” said Rainbow. “Sunset wouldn’t have let that happen. She would have had to be weakened first.”

“I suppose yer right.” She let out a heavy breath. “But now it’s over.”

“Hey!” said Shining. “Would somebody please tell us what’s been going on? We’re so lost. Why was Twily using dark magic? And why is she fine now?”

“I’ll explain it all to you,” said Rainbow, keeping her eye on Twilight, “but shouldn’t someone go over and comfort Twilight?”

Celestia draped a wing over her. “Twilight was the closest one to Spike. For the time being, I think it would be best to leave her be to process what went on today.”

The spirit of triumph faded out of the air as they were reminded once again that Spike was gone.

“What do you mean by that?” asked Cadance, concerned.

Rainbow, Fluttershy, Applejack, and Pinkie had all been right near the front of Celestia’s shield spell to watch the battle, but Rarity had held back, electing to care for Spike instead. Applejack moved out of the way of Cadance’s view to let her see what happened for herself.

Her mouth opened in horror. “Oh, no…” Her head drooped. “I… I see. So that’s why Twilight…”

Shining walked up next to Cadance, holding her. They closed their eyes in silent tribute as they nuzzled their cheeks against one another.

Celestia turned her head. “You five explain the circumstances to Shining and Cadance. I’m going to check on Sunset.”

The other four started explaining the whole situation, but Rarity didn’t join in. Her heart was burning, torn between two choices. The danger had finally passed. Sunset was depowered, and Twilight had calmed down, no longer using dark magic. Things had been so crazy during the battle it was all she could do just to keep on encouraging Spike to hang on. She had watched all her friends suffering and agonizing over Spike’s fate, but she hadn’t told them he was still alive. She didn’t want to get their hopes up in the midst of such a dangerous situation, but now what excuse did she have to keep hiding the truth? She wasn’t the only one that cared about Spike. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to say anything.

‘If only Spike would regain consciousness,’ she thought, her cheeks red with shame. ‘They’re all so distraught but I might be the one suffering most of all, knowing that Spike might slip away completely at any moment. If he would just wake up it would feel alright to tell them.’ She knew it was wrong to keep silent, but she couldn’t bear giving them false hope only to have it torn away. For now she’d bear this pain and fear on her own, and keep on doing the only thing she could.

She gave Spike a hard squeeze, whispering in his ear, “Please, Spikey, wake up. Stay with us. Don’t die. I love you. I want everyone to know that no one is actually dead! I don’t want to keep this secret. So please… please just wake up.”

Spike remained unresponsive, but so long as she could feel the beating of his heart she knew that Spike was still fighting. And if he was fighting then she had to as well. She would call out to him as many times as it took.

Celestia stood over Sunset, a variety of emotions swirling around her, and she didn’t know what to feel first. According to Twilight’s friends Sunset had genuinely wanted to make amends with her, but then hit a huge stumbling block when she discovered the Alicorn Amulet. She wanted to believe them, but she couldn’t quite accept that. It was possible that Sunset had lied, and was out for the Amulet to start with. She would have to wait until Sunset regained consciousness to get the real story. Regardless of Sunset's intentions the one thing that was absolute was getting the location of the Element of Magic from her. Looking over her she didn’t believe that Sunset’s life was in danger.

“Heh heh heh.” Stardust laughed to himself. “Look at them, so at ease. They seem to have forgotten all about me already. How disgraceful.

“Oh, Twi-liiiight, you’re still holding me up with your magic. In other words, your magic is connected to mine. Your mind and memories are an open book to me. I can feel the pain in your soul. You’re just like Sunset. All you need is the right push. You want to escape this pain you’re in, don’t you?”

Twilight wasn’t wearing him, so he couldn’t properly control her or use any spells. However, he could still speak to her so long as she kept a link between them, as well as transfer a little of his influence and darkness into her. He would pull the same trick he did with Sunset. In ordinary circumstances he would never be able to get to her, but these circumstances were anything but ordinary. Twilight had been pushed to the brink emotionally, facing the loss of everyone she cared about. She was at her most vulnerable, and he knew he could get to her in that state.

Mimicking her voice he said to her, “Spike is gone. I can’t believe it.”

Twilight’s face clenched up, along with the rest of her body.

“It’s my fault. If I had taken Sunset seriously from the start this wouldn’t have happened. I couldn’t be like my precious teacher. I couldn’t fight someone I cared about with my whole heart in order to protect everyone else.”

Twilight felt a burning guilt that seemed to emanate from her entire being.

“What… what do I do from here?”

Her tears had stopped, and her eyes were dim. A numb, heavy feeling began to feel like it was crushing her again. ‘I don’t know,’ she thought.

“I just don’t know. NO! That’s wrong! This is all Sunset’s fault! I gave her time and attention, considering her pain and fear, and she threw it back in my face. She should never have touched the Alicorn Amulet in the first place. Didn’t she know what would happen?”

Her despair began to be overcome by a burning anger flaring up within her. She gritted her teeth, glaring over at the laid-out Sunset.

“She betrayed us all! Killed Spike, nearly killed Celestia, nearly killed me, and hurt all my friends!”

Her eyes narrowed to slits, her body shaking with rage.

“Princess Celestia is standing over her. She’s sure to forgive Sunset. But does Sunset really deserve a third chance? She’s unforgivable!” Her horn began to glow slightly, a trace of black within it. “She needs to be dealt with.” She tottered slightly, panting. “I don’t have any more strength. I need more power. I need more power!”

She kept swaying back and forth, the strain of keeping herself afloat amidst everything taking all her strength. She felt like she might pass out, but still she kept unconsciously using her levitation on the Amulet. She was feeling so tired now she couldn’t even stay angry.

“More… power. Sunset… needs to… to pay.” Stardust slowed down his voice in relation to her waning strength.

‘Power…’ thought Twilight, blinking. She noticed the Alicorn Amulet still floating in front of her, her eyes half closed. She reached her legs out, taking it in her hooves.

Hiding his voice from her he said, “That’s right, Twilight. It all feels like a bad dream, doesn’t it? All you have to do is put me on, and I will take all your fears away. You’re barely conscious right now, your body and soul too tired to really think. If you don’t do something now Sunset might get away with all of this. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”

‘I… I want… to protect…’ Twilight tottered, nearly falling again. ‘Friends-need to-keep safe. Need… need more power.’ She stared at the Amulet, almost feeling the whirlpool of power stored within. Had she been in a right state of mind she would never have considered it for a moment, but all her faculties were at the breaking point. She didn't have the space to think, to consider the implications.

One thing was certain: she wouldn’t allow Sunset to cause any more trouble. That Sunset was only being controlled to act that way didn’t occur to her, mainly because Stardust was suppressing that knowledge, only allowing the thoughts that furthered his goal.

Celestia sighed, wondering where they all went from here. Her former student had fallen to darkness again, they had lost Spike, and Twilight was-

“HUH?” she cried out, flinching. As she had thought of Spike and Twilight she had turned her head towards both of them. “TWILIGHT, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” she shouted, her eyes widening. Twilight had a dead, glassy look in her eyes, and was raising the chain of the Amulet towards her neck.

That got all of their attention, and they all turned to look at Twilight.

Celestia quickly fired up her horn, but her slight hesitation had been enough to cost her the few precious seconds she needed to stop Twilight.

The Amulet fell around Twilight’s neck, and the effect was immediate. Her horn exploded with power, darkness surrounding her as Stardust began laughing with pure delight. Twilight’s body was his!

Chapter 15: Love versus hate

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The ponies that had been watching the battle all bailed as they saw Twilight fall to Stardust's influence.

A dark vortex of energy was swirling around Twilight, becoming smaller until it outlined her, making her appear as a living shadow. There was some white where the eyes should be, and the purple aura had appeared out of her eyes.

“This is stupendous!” Stardust proclaimed, his voice coming out of Twilight’s mouth. He had been feeding on all of Sunset’s pain, fear, and insecurities, and now he had all of Twilight’s boosting him up. It was a dream come true. “Finally!” he shouted to the air. “I finally have the body of an alicorn!”

Applejack collapsed to the ground. Everything was supposed to be over. “Why?” she said, not comprehending. “Why would Twilight ever put on the Alicorn Amulet?”

Rainbow was at a loss for words. Twilight was invisible to them. All they could see was an overwhelming darkness.

Fluttershy gulped heavily, tears in her eyes. How long was this gonna go on? How long was this thing going to ruin their happiness?

“This can’t be happening,” said Pinkie, tears forming in her own eyes. “I… I can’t believe this.”

Rarity was shaking, clutching Spike for support, even though it was supposed to be the other way around. Whatever that was it was not Twilight.

“Twily…” Shining also couldn’t form a coherent response. They had learned the story of what had happened, and were told they had nothing to worry about. Twilight would be back to normal by battles end. “What could have possessed her to do this?”

Cadance put a shaky hoof on him. “I think ‘possessed’ might be the key word here.”

Stardust looked down smugly at Celestia. “You can’t imagine how good this feels, Princess. Your favorite student is under my thrall. How does it feel?”

Celestia only glared wordlessly at the sight before her. On the inside she felt fear, but on the outside she was fully composed.

“No response, Princess?” He laughed, lifting his hoof and shaking it back and forth a few times. “Don’t worry so much. Twilight is only ‘sleeping’ right now. Twilight was so weak in every way, and I so strong from absorbing the negative feelings of my two hosts, that my will has overtaken hers. I’m in control right now. Eventually she’ll ‘wake up’ and she’ll likely regain control of her mind by then.”

Shining’s horn flared up with energy. “There is no eventually! You release my sister right now or there will be nothing left of you!”

Rainbow hopped over next to him, slamming her hooves together. “What he said!”

That only made Stardust laugh harder. “By all means,” he said with amusement. “Fire away. Hit me, blast me, suffocate me, crush me. You can do whatever you want, but it will all come to naught. My essence is simply mixing with her dark magic, wrapping itself around Twilight like a blanket. Anything you do to me won’t hurt me in the slightest. You’ll only wind up hurting Twilight.” Lifting his head up a bit to the side he looked down at the two confidently. “If you want to destroy your sister and friend then feel free. I won’t do a thing to stop you.”

Shining’s horn slowly stopped glowing, and both he and Rainbow lost their fighting spirit.

“Very good. I’m glad to see you understand.”

Celestia took a few steps forward. “Haven’t you caused enough trouble, Stardust? There’s still time to end this. Can’t you stop all this? Let Twilight go.”

“Are you trying to barter with me now, Princess Celestia?” he responded. “We both know it’s just a waste of your time. If you want Twilight back you know the only option you have, and it’s not as simple as what happened with your precious sister. This time simple waiting won’t be enough. But you know that, and that’s why you don’t want to face it.”

Celestia kept the iron mask on her face. She did know. She knew it well.

“What is it worth to you to have Twilight returned to you?” he asked, and his amusement faded. “Will you bow down to me and acknowledge my superiority? Apologize for sealing me away all this time?”

Once more Celestia just stared at him.

Cadance felt a pain in her heart. “Please, Twilight! Fight him!”

“Keep quiet, you inferior alicorn,” Stardust said dismissively, sliding his hoof across the air. The earth shifted a bit, knocking her to the ground harmlessly. “The big ponies are talking.”

“Cadance!” Shining called out, kneeling down to check on her. “You jerk! How dare you attack my wife!”

As he powered up his horn again the darkness around Twilight faded slightly, revealing her face. “Please, Shiny! Don’t!”

Shining stopped immediately, backing up a step. He couldn’t attack Twilight. It was the one thing he absolutely could not do.

Stardust shook his head. Good ponies were so easy to manipulate. If one couldn’t turn their heart to stone and do what needed to be done for the greater good they were worthless. In that regard he had to respect Celestia at least that much. She allowed herself to suffer for a thousand years until she could find a worthy heir to the Elements of Harmony to free her sister from the darkness.

All the same, it did nothing to his desire to remove Celestia from the picture permanently for what she had done to him. At the current time that was impossible though. Like it or not he would have to retreat until he could break Twilight to his will. Otherwise she would only resist his attempts to attack Celestia. It didn’t matter how much power he now possessed if he couldn’t attack anything with it.

He couldn’t just leave, though. As soon as Twilight regained her senses she would attempt to remove him in a heartbeat. Before that happened he had to use her to do something she ordinarily would never do. Twilight felt a sense of guilt over Spike, but it had been indirectly her fault. If she did something deliberately she would have no else to blame but herself for it. That would give him the weight he needed to break her mental defenses.

He got a wicked idea. ‘Ah, Sunset, you’re just perfect.’ Sunset had been the actual one to kill Spike, and had caused Twilight to rely on dark magic in desperation. She had caused Twilight a black hole of negative emotions because of the close calls that nearly cost her all her other friends as well. In the state Twilight was in she would have no problems with finishing the weakened Sunset off. After all, had Celestia, Shining, and Cadance not intervened Twilight would have done so already.

When Twilight regained consciousness and realized what she had done the weight of her actions would break her mentally. She would not be able to forgive herself for losing so much of her true self to darkness and revenge. If the damage was great enough and her psyche broke completely she would basically become comatose, just an empty vessel he could control as he wished. It was the most ideal scenario, because Twilight would never interfere with his plans again.

He knew from the beginning that Twilight would require more work than Sunset to sway to darkness. Getting Twilight to wear him had been the most difficult part. The fear of failure was over.

Stardust thought for a moment. He could just blast Sunset and immediately retreat, but that might not be enough to fracture Twilight’s mind. After all, she could always use the excuse that she only did it because she was being controlled. If Twilight did the deed herself, though, she couldn’t use that to turn away from what she’d done.

“You know what?” Stardust said, walking toward them. Fluttershy squeaked and hid behind Rainbow Dash. “I’ve had a change of heart. Sunset’s heart was full of so much darkness and hatred. It was thoroughly unpleasant. On the other hoof though…” He stopped, touching his chest. “Twilight’s heart is different. I can feel something different there. She’s filled with so much love and affection. Though I don’t want to admit it I can feel it influencing me.”

The darkness surrounding Twilight’s body slowly began to fade, starting from her tail and heading towards her head. As the last of it faded Twilight looked herself again.

Fluttershy poked her head out from Rainbow’s legs. “D-do you think Twilight’s okay?”

“I sure hope so,” said Applejack. “But we can’t just take that thing at its word.”

“Wakey-wakey, Twilight,” said Stardust, stirring her consciousness.

Twilight had a dazed expression on her face. She wasn’t sure where she was or what she had just been doing. She shook her head, gazing at everyone. “Hey, there,” she said with a feeble wave.

“Are you alright, Twilight?” asked Pinkie Pie.

“I… I think so…”

“Not for long,” said Stardust. “I think you need to teach Sunset a lesson, and I’ll keep stirring up your feelings until you do so.”

He implanted thoughts into her mind, reminding her of everything that had been occurring that day. He made Spike’s death the most prominent.

Once more Twilight felt like an overwhelming weight was on her, so deep that it felt physical. She fell to her knees, holding herself as she cried out, “Spike!”

“Twilight, you need to remove the Alicorn Amulet!” Celestia called out.

Twilight didn’t hear her. Stardust was controlling her senses now, and he drowned Celestia out.

“You hate Sunset, don’t you, Twilight? Let’s stir up those feelings next.”

He had already done it before. It would be simple to do so now. “This is Sunset’s fault! She’s a heartless murderer. If she’s left alone she’ll only cause more trouble.”

Speaking as her thoughts he reawakened her anger. It was a much more wondrous thing now that she was actually wearing him. He could feel the white hot anger burning inside her. “Very good, Twilight. Let the rage flow through you, filling you up.”

Twilight’s horn glowed a dark red, his power mixing with a touch of dark magic.

Sunset regained consciousness, squirming a little on the ground. She felt weary and weak. Opening an eye and sitting up a bit she saw a sight that woke her up completely. The Amulet was around Twilight’s neck! “No!” she whispered. It really had taken Twilight’s body while she had been knocked out.

“Awake, are you?” Twilight said coldly. “Not for long. I’ll give you a minute to say your prayers before I end your life.”

Sunset shivered. That was definitely not Twilight. Behind Twilight’s eyes she could see the dark cloud of Stardust. She was completely under his power.

A tear came down her eye. What was she to do? She had no strength to stop a super-powered Twilight.

Celestia turned around to the group behind her. “That thing… I see right through him. He has only kept us alive because Twilight would fight him off if he tried to off us, but so long as he doesn’t try to commit actions that go against her will she’ll ‘sleep’ and let him use her body.

Celestia closed her eyes. “Everyone… I have to be completely blunt and honest here: Twilight is much stronger than I am right now. Without the power of the Elements for strength and the ability to purge the darkness I am left with few options here.

“Twilight is mired in darkness right now, so she will go along with getting rid of Sunset, as all her pain stems from my former student. However, once Twilight truly awakens she will fall into despair over what she’s done. That is the break Stardust is waiting for. He cannot use Twilight to her true potential or to harm us until Twilight’s will is completely broken. Our bond with her is far too strong for him to do otherwise. In other words, the last link to Twilight’s sanity right now is with Sunset.

“Answer me this, my little ponies.” She addressed her words to Twilight’s five friends. “Do you believe in Twilight from the bottom of your hearts?”

“Of course!” said Pinkie immediately.

“Yes!” “I do!” They all agreed.

“I see…” Celestia opened her eyes, a grim look upon her face. “Then I leave it to you to get through to her. As the ruler of Equestria I cannot let any one pony be labelled more important than all of Equestria. All of you must be prepared for something unpleasant.”

“What do you mean, Princess?” Shining asked, a bit of an edge in his voice.

“You know very well what I mean, Shining,” she said impassively. “Stardust absolutely cannot be allowed to gain full control of Twilight’s powers, or none of us will stand a chance against him. If Twilight succeeds in killing Sunset then I will have no choice but to kill Twilight for the safety of everyone.”

You could have knocked all of them over with a feather.

Tears came to Pinkie’s eyes. “H-how can you say that? Y-you’d… you’d do that… to-to Twilight?”

“You can’t!” said Shining harshly. “I won’t allow you to!”

“Silence yourself, Shining Armor,” Celestia said scathingly, turning towards him. “I’ve told you not to allow your personal feelings to come into play when it comes to protecting others. Honestly speaking I should have killed Twilight immediately as soon as she put on the Amulet, as there was always the chance she would simply flee. Be grateful I’m allowing this much leeway.”

Turning towards Twilight she said, “As the former captain of the Royal Guard I thought I taught you that no pony is above reproach. I remember telling you that should I ever become corrupted that you should strike me down without mercy to protect everyone else. Have you forgotten that already?”

Shining grimaced. “No… no, I haven’t.”

“But you can’t expect us to just give up on Twilight!” Cadance said, tears dripping down her face. Memories were flashing in front of her eyes of all the time they had spent together when Twilight was a filly.

Celestia gathered up magic in her horn, closing her eyes again. “Of course not. I do not wish this to come to pass any more than any of you. If you’re not prepared that’s fine, but I am. I’ll give you the chance to win Twilight over, but if your attempts prove unsuccessful then I’ll be left with no other options. Twilight cannot be allowed to flee. I do not believe that Stardust will want Twilight to flee before killing Sunset. Sunset is the one and only pony to have invoked such strong negative feelings within Twilight, so Sunset is the only pony she would be persuaded to kill without resisting.

“Now go forth, and succeed in waking up your sleeping friend.”

Rainbow nodded hard, wiping away a few tears. She had thought it before, and she was thinking it now: she had already lost one friend. She wasn’t going to lose another.

Rarity was shaking Spike hard. “Please, Spikey, wake up! Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” She was breathing hard as she stopped her shaking. “If Twilight finds out you’re awake she’s sure to come back to herself. She wouldn’t bear such a grudge against Sunset anymore. Can’t you hear me, Spike? Twilight needs you more than ever right now!”

Despite her fervent pleas Spike didn’t wake or show any indication he was hearing her. Though she didn’t want to admit it to herself maybe she had become a little unhinged after Spike was attacked. Maybe the feel of his heartbeat and the slow in and out motion of his chest was all in her mind because she just couldn’t accept the truth. Maybe Spike had been dead all along and she was just deluded.

She didn’t know what to do if she couldn’t be one hundred percent sure that Spike truly was still among the living. Twilight was on the brink of being lost forever. If she told Twilight that Spike was still alive it would probably get through to her, but what if it really was all in her mind that he was? If Twilight was let down and had to experience losing Spike all over again it would probably break her as effectively as the Amulet would.

She would have to entrust things to her other friends for now. If it seemed like they would fail then telling Twilight what she thought was the truth about Spike might be enough to shake her out of the darkness clouding her soul.

“Well, then!” said Twilight, her voice mixing with Stardust’s, “I think that’s enough time to ruminate about past wrongs.” Her horn glowed brighter and brighter.

“Goodbye, Sunset!” said Stardust, preparing to release his spell.

“Stop!” said Rainbow, landing in front of Sunset. “If you want to kill her then you’ll have to kill me too.”

Twilight returned to herself for a moment, her emotions overriding him. “Rainbow Dash!” she said.

“Hey, it worked!” said Pinkie.

Stardust inwardly cursed. Twilight’s bond with her friends was like unbreakable diamonds. If he gave even a hint of attacking Rainbow to get to Sunset then Twilight’s mind would instantly reassert itself. She would not allow her body to be mindlessly used to harm her good friends.

Stardust forced himself to calm. Now was not the time to lose his head. If Rainbow was in the way all he had to do was get rid of her in a way that Twilight would not object to. So long as Rainbow wouldn’t come to harm Twilight wouldn’t fight him.

“I know that Rainbow means well, but Sunset does have to be punished,” Stardust said in her mind, imitating her voice again. “If I just gently move her out of the way then I can continue.”

Rainbow became enveloped in a red aura, then with a flash she was teleported back by the rest of them. Before she could try to fire again Pinkie Pie jumped in front of Sunset now.

“I don’t think so, Twilight,” she said, shaking her head. “Leave Sunset alone.”

With another flash Pinkie was teleported away, only to be replaced by Applejack.

“Darn it, darn it, darn it!” Stardust was losing patience. Each time he moved one of them another one took their place. “Oh! Aha!” He regained his cool as he realized there was a much simpler way of going about things. If teleporting Twilight’s friends away wasn’t working, then why not teleport herself?

“If I teleport right in front of Sunset I can nail her point blank before the rest of them can get in the way.”

It made sense to Twilight. With a flash of her horn she vanished, appearing right in front of Sunset, her horn powering up.

“AH! “Oh, no!” “Nooo!” The rest of them let out surprised exclamations. They were too late.

Sunset looked into Twilight’s eyes, fear and terror reflected into Twilight’s cold, merciless glare. She flinched, knowing it was the end.

Time seemed to stop.

“It’s over!” Stardust said victoriously.

Seconds passed, and everyone was taut with anticipation, but Twilight didn’t fire.

Twilight’s horn gradually lost power. The ferocious gaze on her face slowly faded. Looking at Sunset’s expression, how scared she was, drained her of her feelings of anger. She never wanted to make someone have that expression when they looked at her. She had also seen herself in the reflection of Sunset’s eyes. She looked almost monstrous. Her desire for revenge faded. She didn’t want to go through with this.

“I… what have I been doing?” she said to herself. “This isn’t the way to go about things.”

Stardust would have been gnashing his teeth if he had a body. “What are you doing, Twilight? Kill her! Kill her NOW!”

In his anger Stardust hadn’t shielded his words from her, and she could hear his voice echoing in her mind. “Who’s talking to me? He… I…” She gasped, a fuzzy memory coming back to her. Needing to confirm it she looked down, and saw the Alicorn Amulet around her neck.

A look of horror came to her features. With a frustrated cry she grabbed it, yanking it off her neck. She threw it into the air, and gathered what little strength she had left and blasted it, tears coming down her face.

The whole outer portion of the Amulet had been obliterated, but the jewel was still intact.

Twilight was panting, her insides like ice. She had almost… she had nearly…

Why would she consider even for a single instant to put on the Amulet, after everything she had seen it do?

She barely had time to really feel her despair before her friends were on her, hugging her and squeezing her.

“Way to go, Twilight!” said Rainbow, giving her a noogie.

“We knew you’d come back!” said Pinkie, nuzzling her face.

“All of you,” Twilight said, grateful for their support. There was still a lot to process, but the danger had to be over now, didn’t it?

As if in response to that thought there was a cracking sound behind her. She spun around quickly, her eyes zeroing in on the jewel.

There were a few more snapping sounds before what looked like a dark mist came emanating out of it.

“What is that?” asked Shining, putting a comforting hoof around Twilight.

“Nothing good, I’m sure,” said Cadance.

The smoky mist solidified into the form of a pony. It looked exactly like Twilight had looked when she had first put on the Amulet.

“Hmmm,” said the smoky figure. “Now this is interesting.” He lifted a hoof, flexing it. The horn upon his head glowed red, and a rock lifted off the ground before falling. “Freed from the confines of the jewel I seem to be able to channel my magic without a host now.

“This has all been amusing, but I think it’s about time I regained my special little alicorn friend. Isn’t that right... Twilight?”

Twilight flinched. She didn’t want him anywhere near her again. She couldn’t help it. She felt terrified, and she hid behind her brother, Cadance, and Celestia like a little filly.

He laughed as his body lost definition, becoming mere smoke again as he flew towards Twilight.

Shining created a shield spell to block him, but Stardust went right through it as if it wasn’t there. “No! How?”

“Fool!” Stardust said. “Your puny shield can’t stop me.”

Cadance walked in front of Twilight, creating her own shield.

“Idiot! Didn’t I just tell you that you can’t-WHOA!” To Stardust’s surprise he was sent flying backward.

“You will not harm Twilight again, you sick beast!”

Stardust glared at Cadance, curious. “Oh, right. Your shield spell is based on love, so it’s fundamentally different than your husbands.”

Sunset quivered on the ground. She couldn’t believe it. Even now Stardust was causing trouble. He had used her to do so many bad things and cause so much pain. She wasn’t going to let him keep getting away with it. She might be sad and pathetic, but there was one last thing she could still do. She just hoped she still had the strength to do it.

There was a flash and a popping sound. “Sunset’s gone!” Fluttershy said.

“Priorities,” Celestia said, a little nervous. “There are bigger things to worry about here.”

Stardust gently tapped his shadowy hoof on the ground. Sunset was testing his patience. Where she went to he didn’t particularly care, but she really should have died by now.

He smiled. What did it matter anyway? He wasn’t stuck inside the crystal anymore. He didn’t yet have a proper body, but he would change that soon. Inside the crystal he could only push ponies, but they always had the option of removing him, breaking the connection. Twilight couldn’t do that when he was inside her very mind and soul. Eventually he would wear down her mental defenses and break her, then he would have full control of her body for the rest of his life.

There was only one thing standing in his way. Lifting his hoof he pointed to Cadance. “You! The pink alicorn!”

Cadance glared at him. “What do you want?”

“We have some business, you and I. Come a little closer.” Cadance stayed right where she was. “Oh, come on. We don’t have to do this the hard way, do we?” Directing his hoof to the side his horn began to glow. “Ponyville could be a smoldering ruin by the time I’m done.”

“You think so?” said Shining Armor, his own horn starting to glow. “I repelled an army of Changelings while under mind control and while my energy was being drained. You think I can’t stop your magic?”

Stardust chuckled loudly, his head going back. “Do you really want to test me? You might be right. However, if you’re wrong, well… it would just be too bad for the inhabitants of this town.”

A bead of sweat came down Shining’s face. He was confident in his skills, but he didn’t know what might happen if they clashed. There was a possibility that Stardust’s spells would just phase through his shield spells like Stardust himself did.

Cadance was thinking along the same lines. She took a few steps forward so she was in front of everyone. “What do you want?” she asked again.

Stardust laughed again. “There we go. Now we’re ready. I’ve disconnected with Twilight, so her memories are no longer an open book to me, but I do know that you have a different kind of shield spell than Shining or most unicorns. None of the rest of them can stop me. That being the case you’re just in the way.”

A shadowy ball swirled around him like wind. “Me and you, no holds barred. Your love versus my hatred. If you win you’ll save everyone, especially your precious Twilight. If you fail, well… you know what will happen. Twilight will be mine. I have no interest in your body. You might be a little stronger than Twilight, but your love magic makes us a mismatched pair. I’d much rather have the alicorn that possesses dark magic. I’d find a lovely home there.”

Twilight shuddered, wishing she could stand up. She was still drained from all the fighting. The thought of having that thing inside her again creeped her out, not the least because she knew what he wanted to do with her. He’d kill everyone she held dear. The only way to gain strength now would be to use dark magic again, which would only help Stardust out. He would probably absorb any dark magic she tried to throw his way.

Cadance turned her head to Twilight. “Don’t worry about a thing, Twilight.” She smiled warmly. “I was your foalsitter for a long time. I always protected you back then, and I’ll keep you safe now.”

Twilight smiled back, a sheen of tears making her eyes sparkle. “I believe in you, Cadance!”

Cadance turned back towards Stardust, her gaze turning serious. “Well? I’m ready when you are.”

“Done talking already?” Stardust asked. “Isn’t there more you want to say, like ‘goodbye?’ After all, this is the last time you’ll be able to talk to her.”

A blue glow formed on Cadance’s horn. “Well, you’re not short on confidence, I’ll give you that. But the Princess of Love will never allow your evil to prevail.”

“He he he! It would be so easy to attack someone to break your concentration, but I do have my pride. I want to beat you at your best.”

It was starting to look all too familiar as Stardust and Cadance built up their energy. It was time for another clash of strength between the Amulet and its opposer.

“W-who do you think is gonna win?” asked Fluttershy.

Rainbow Dash was starting to feel a little nervous. “How much power does that thing have?” She stomped a hoof. “He already fought a huge battle with Twilight earlier. Doesn’t he have any limits on his strength?”

“Well…” Applejack hesitated. “Well… he did take over Twilight fer a brief while. He might have absorbed all the dark magic she was using.”

Rainbow sharply turned her head towards Applejack. “So you’re saying that it’s basically like he never fought at all and is at full strength again?”

Celestia spoke up in a resigned voice. “I think that’s a definite possibility. It could also be that he doesn’t actually lose energy at all. He feeds off of ponies negative emotions to grow in strength, so in the right hooves he has a constant stream of power so long as he has a host.”

Pinkie let out a triumphant “HA!” Everyone turned to look at her. “But he doesn’t have a host to feed on anymore. That means he can grow weaker from using magic like anyone else.”

Celestia took in a slow breath before turning back to Cadance and Stardust. “I sure hope so. As he said Cadance’s special brand of shield magic is all that stands between us and him. If she is unable to prevail, then…”

None of them needed her to finish. It meant they were basically all doomed. The most they could do was run away.

“If it comes down to that, Princess, isn’t there anything we could do?” asked Rainbow.

“We cannot allow Equestria to be reduced to a ruin, nor let him become ruler. Truth be told getting Twilight’s body is a risk for him now.”

“W-why is that?” asked Rarity.

“In the past he has been confined to the Amulet. Even if his host was killed he would live on in the next host to put it on. However, without the housing of the Amulet his soul is stuck wherever he places it. In simple terms, he’ll die if Twilight dies.”

Twilight flinched. “I… I see…” Her heart began to beat faster. “And… and if he takes over a physical body then technically anyone could hurt him.”

Stardust charged at Cadance as she put up her shield around all of them.

Twilight was panting slightly. “Princess!”

Celestia turned toward her. “Yes, Twilight? Do you have an idea?”

Twilight felt like she couldn’t get enough oxygen in her system, but she had to say it. “If… if… if it looks like Cadance will fail I want you to prepare the strongest spell you can muster, and obliterate me in a single shot as soon as he takes my body.”

Her friends all voiced their protests, sure there had to be a better way.

“Quiet, everyone!” Twilight said, overriding them. “We don’t have a choice here. If he gets full control over me then I’ll wind up destroying all I hold dear to me. We don’t have the Elements of Harmony anymore. This is the only option left.

“Please, Princess… promise me! Promise me you won’t let me succumb to the darkness.”

Celestia knew Twilight was right. She had prepared for it earlier. A tear came down her cheek as she nodded. “I promise, Twilight.” She turned her head to Cadance. ‘Please,’ she begged internally, ‘you have to win. Please, Cadance!’

***

With a pop Sunset appeared by the front door of the library. A wave of dizziness came over her, and she spread out all four of her legs to keep her balance, panting hard. She had been in no condition to teleport, but time was of the essence.

When the dizziness passed she slowly pushed herself up so she could walk. Her legs felt like they had hundred pound weights attached to them. Her body ached from her injuries. She felt like she might pass out at any moment, but she wouldn’t fall. She had to keep walking.

She knew there wasn’t much time left, but still she could move no faster than a walk. To save energy she didn’t even bother lifting her legs. She just shuffled them along the ground.

‘I… I won’t… let it end here,’ she thought desperately. ‘Twilight… I… I’m going to save you… even if it costs me my life!’

Chapter 16: Sacrifice

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Sunset opened the door of the library , walking on shaky hooves until she was at the staircase.

Closing her eyes she concentrated her energy into her horn, willing herself to the top of the stairs.

She disappeared with a pop, but when she opened her eyes she saw she had only gone a few feet forward. She wobbled, the cost of the spell taking its toll on her weary body. She began to fall forward, ready to pass out. When she was halfway there she regained her senses, putting her hooves out to keep herself up.

She was panting hard now. “No!” She couldn’t afford to fail here. If she couldn’t use magic she would have to rely on her own hooves. She didn’t like the prospect of climbing stairs in her condition, but there wasn’t any time to waste.

‘One step at a time,’ she thought to herself, lifting a hoof onto the first step. ‘One hoof, one hoof, one hoof, and then another hoof.’ She made it a process, slowly lifting each hoof, trying to focus entirely on the task of climbing, throwing away useless thoughts and the protests of her body.

It worked. She managed to get halfway there before she almost collapsed again, her face drenched with sweat. She was having trouble getting oxygen into her body. She was lightheaded. ‘No. I can’t stop here. I… I… can’t… sto-”

Her eyes rolled up into her head, and she fell to the ground, still but for her breathing.

***

Cadance was panting, her face weary with her increasing exhaustion. “He… he’s too powerful. I… I can’t hold him.”

As he reached the front of her shield Cadance turned her face, saying tearfully, “Twilight!”

“Cadance!” Twilight replied, hopping up, but it was too late.

There was a sound like breaking glass as her spell shattered and she went flying into the air, crashing hard into the ground some ten feet away.

He knocked everyone else out of the way, heading straight for Twilight.

There was quiet for a few moments in time. Everyone turned to her.

Twilight blinked, wondering what had just occurred. She looked at her hooves. “I don’t understand. What happ-AAHH!”

Twilight let out a yell as her horn began to glow a bright red, lighting shooting out of her body as she was lifted off the ground in a big black sphere of magic.

She continued to scream as the sphere shrunk until it fit around her body, covering her in shadows. “At last!” came the voice of Stardust. There was no mixture of voices like before. “I finally have a body again! A true body, with all the powers of an alicorn!” He let out a booming laugh as everyone else looked on in horror.

***

“AH!” Sunset jerked awake, sweat coming down her face. She shook her head hard. “No! That won’t happen. I refuse! I will save Twilight, no matter what it takes.”

Her nightmare had awakened her adrenaline, and she felt some strength return to her. She finished climbing the stairs, heading to the blanket hammock where she had slept the night before. Sunset grabbed a book from the shelf, throwing it upward.

She hit it on the first try. It inverted, and she let out a sigh of relief when she saw the Element of Magic pop out of it. It had seemed the simplest place to leave it. She hadn’t been expecting Twilight to come back, after all.

She made the effort to catch the book as well as the Element. Twilight loved her books dearly, and she didn’t want to harm anything else Twilight loved.

“Got it,” she said with a weary laugh. “Safe and sound. Now to get you to Twilight.” Too tired for her magic to last levitating it and wanting her hooves free to walk she went to put the Element on her head. She stopped, a freezing storm passing through her. She envisioned herself as a demon. After all she had done that day she had no doubt the same thing would happen if she put it on again. If that happened then they really would all be doomed.

Straining, she climbed the stairs to the loft where Twilight slept. After a quick search she found Twilight’s saddle bag, and placed the Element inside. She felt a little more nervous about going down the stairs than up in her condition. If she fell going up then she’d just be stuck on the step. If she was going down she’d fall all the way to the floor. It wasn’t an exciting prospect.

She turned around, about to grab Spike’s basket, but guilt made her stop. She didn’t want to risk breaking one of the things Spike had left behind. Twilight had already suffered enough. She went to Twilight’s bed, grabbing a pillow and placing it over her head. She grabbed a blanket, tying the pillow to her head. Straining again she pushed the much heavier mattress off of Twilight’s bed. If she had been in peak condition it would have been nothing, but in the state she was in it felt like pushing a gigantic boulder. It would only move a little at a time, and her hooves ached, but she pressed on until it tipped over.

Sweat poured down her face as she pushed the mattress toward the stairs. It took every ounce of her determination to keep going, but she persisted. As it reached the edge of the stairs she quickly hopped on, letting the momentum propel it downward. She wasn’t able to get a good hold on the mattress as she went down, and when it hit the bottom she was launched off it, landing on her head and rolling some more before coming to a stop.

The pillow had absorbed most of the impact, but it had still hurt a little. She didn’t have time to dwell on it. She had one more staircase to go. She had no idea how much time she had before Stardust would overtake Cadance, but she knew time was against her.

There was no one else. She was the only one that could do what needed to be done now.

She huffed and puffed and inwardly cursed everything as she pulled the mattress toward the second set of stairs. This one was longer, and she didn’t relish going down like this. She grabbed her own pillow and blanket, tying them around her stomach for a little extra cushioning.

She closed her eyes as she pushed off the stairs, her heart racing as she zoomed down them, coming to a hard stop at the end, once more being launched a few feet into the air before landing face down.

She whimpered in pain. Her snout was now throbbing in addition to all her other aches and pains. She was thankful that she had added that extra pillow or her stomach would be sore as well. Tears were forced out of her as she held onto her nose and turned on her side. She could feel a little blood but she didn’t think anything was broken.

She gave herself a minute to recover, then forced herself to rise up again. She couldn’t stay there forever. Twilight’s life was hanging in the balance.

As she stood up fully she had to close her eyes as a wave of dizziness passed over her. It would be so easy to just collapse where she stood and let everything fade away, but her desire to take the easy route was exactly what had gotten her into this trouble in the first place.

As Stardust had said she had been trying to win over Celestia with a good deed instead of just opening her heart and apologizing for what she had done before. She had let fear overcome her good senses. He had laid every secret thing in her heart bare before her, and made her realize how far she still had to go as a person.

How could she have been won over so easily? He had been manipulating her towards his will from the beginning. He had never been her friend. Even if she was being controlled to lead her down a specific route she had been the one to willingly walk that road. A life was lost because of her, and she had to take responsibility for that.

There was no time for proper grieving. All she could do now was give Twilight what she needed to prevail. After that she’d have to face punishment. She might be locked up in Tartarus, or banished to the moon like Luna. She’d accept any punishment, but only after she saved Twilight and Celestia and Rainbow and all the rest. She didn’t expect to receive any praise, as the threat wouldn’t have been there if not for her, so it only made sense for her to be the one to clean it up.

Whatever awaited her she wanted to spare Twilight any more suffering.

She wanted to bash herself over and over, but every second that passed was one that Cadance might lose. ‘No,’ Sunset thought grimly. ‘There is no might about it. She is definitely going to lose. It’s only a matter of how long it will take.’

She had heard all his words, and seen Twilight taken in as well. Stardust, whatever his faults, was skilled at finding the darkness in someone’s heart and exploiting it, making it grow bigger and heavier. No matter how skilled they were every pony had a few things in their past that could cause a seed of darkness to be planted, only waiting for the right impetus to cause it to blossom. Cadance was no different. All he needed to do was find that one weakness and Cadance was done for, along with Twilight.

Steadying herself she set her face in a determined glare. She trotted to the door, ignoring the throbbing in her legs telling her to stop and rest. With every step she moved two of her legs, then the other two. She chanted a mantra in her mind, focusing on it to the exclusion of all else. ‘Two hooves, four hooves, two hooves, four hooves, two hooves, four hooves.’ Over and over she thought it to keep her mind off her injuries. She could collapse later.

“Hang in there, Twilight! I’m coming!”

***

Cadance stood firm, her protective magic keeping Twilight and the rest safe behind her.

Stardust was a little annoyed. He couldn’t make any significant progress against her shield. Had he underestimated her?

Cadance noticed his frustration. “Something wrong?” she asked with a hint of smugness. She was content she had the strength to protect her sister-in-law from a creep like him. With everything he had been responsible for she felt he deserved to be humbled a bit before she defeated him.

“Hmm?” Stardust replied.

“Earlier you dismissed me when you were chatting with Celestia. I believe you called me an inferior alicorn. Yet right now I’m the only one that can shield the others from you. Unless you’re holding back something I have to say I’m not impressed.”

“Grrrr!” His shadowy eyes narrowed. “How dare you?”

“Give it all you’ve got, hmm? Or maybe you already are. In which case I have to say you’re a sorry excuse for an enemy. It seems to me that when forced out into the open you’re incapable of anything significant.”

The shadowy blackness that surrounded him turned a reddish color as his rage peaked.

Cadance grinned, shaking her head as he increased his assault. Near effortlessly she matched his power.”I suppose that is all you can manage. I guess I’d better just beat you then.”

Stardust’s essence turned back to black, and he started chuckling. “Defeat me? I wonder… if you can.”

“If this is all you can put out then this match is already over.”

Celestia didn’t want to distract Cadance, as Stardust was surely searching for a moment of weakness or inattention, but she wished Cadance would stop taunting him. There was no telling what he might do if enraged.

Stardust smirked. “You know, it was only for a short time but I was bonded to Twilight a little while ago. As her ‘partner’ I had access to all her memories. Quite impressive stuff. Things haven’t changed much from before, have they? You really do basically only see Twilight when the fate of Equestria hangs in the balance.”

Cadance didn’t respond to him.

“I see how you’re so strong. You could create a city-wide shield to keep King Sombra out of the Crystal Empire, so by shortening the range of the spell to just the area around you then you don’t expend nearly as much energy, and can make it stronger to boot.

“You know, this wasn’t the first time the two of you showed off impressive shield spell work. As Shining Armor said he was able to keep his shield active even while the Changeling Queen fed off his energy and was brainwashing him.”

“What’s your point?”

“Oh, nothing. Just making an observation.

“How was that, by the way? Taken by surprise and locked in the Canterlot Caves?”

“Hmph. Are you expecting a cheap taunt like that to work?”

Ignoring her he continued on, “And all the while your husband had no idea you were being impersonated. How must that feel, to know that no one could tell it wasn’t the real you, even though your personality had changed?”

She knew what he was trying to do, trying to distract her. She just had to ignore him.

“Even your future husband couldn’t tell? How shameful.”

“He was being brainwashed. I can’t fault him for not being in control of his faculties.”

“True, true. He was being brainwashed, wasn’t he? She’d make him blank out for a while to feed on him, feed on his love that should have gone to you.”

Stardust felt the tiniest shift in her emotions, her spell weakening for a moment. He had found her weakness. Now he would exploit it for all it was worth. “Oh, my!” he said in a scandalous voice. “Without proper consciousness who knows what he and Chrysalis got up to?”

He didn’t just feel it this time. He could see her expression change and her shield weaken a bit before she caught herself and refocused.

“You and Shining have a daughter now, but maybe... maybe Chrysalis got to him first, if you know what I mean? Who knows what they did in the bed before you were rescued. It was probably crazy!”

A tear came down her cheek. It was one of the things she had wondered about sometimes after their marriage, but didn’t want to bring up. The only one who knew for sure was Chrysalis.

He had put a nick in her armor. That was all he needed, to plant a seed of doubt in her mind. She would not be able to put her full mind to protecting Twilight if somewhere inside she was doubting herself or her husband.

“Hey!” Shining shouted, taking a few steps forward. “Cut that out! You said this was going to be a fair contest, so stop trying to cheat.”

Stardust looked over at Shining. “I did say that, but I think you need to blame Cadance for this. After all, she began taunting me first. I thought it was only fair I get to respond in kind.”

He didn’t need to keep pushing the point anyway. Those feelings he had awoken would only continue to drain her strength. She’d be distracted by them, then feel guilty for thinking about something so personal and selfish while Twilight was in danger, and try to focus again, that guilt draining her and causing her to think about her doubts once more. The cycle would repeat over and over until he eventually won.

“Cadance!” Shining continued. “My memories back then are a little fuzzy because of her influence, but I swear there was nothing more than a kiss on the cheek that went on between us.”

Cadance couldn’t resist the relief that flowed through her at those words. Given that Chrysalis didn’t actually care about Shining and only wanted him as a trophy it made sense. Still, even if the two of them had gone all the way was that even the important thing here? Her personal issues could wait until she was alone with him. She was the only thing standing between Twilight and possession. How could she even be thinking of such a thing right now?

Stardust gently chuckled to himself. He could see the inner struggle going on in Cadance’s mind, going on just as he said. Her spell was gradually weakening. Soon she would begin to panic, further breaking her concentration. The moment he had gotten into her head is the moment she had lost. At this point it was all a matter of time.

As if in defiance to that the rest of them began to throw in their encouragement to her. They saw her struggling, wanting to share in her burden and lighten her load. He could have complained, but there was no need to. So long as there was a trace of doubt in her heart that was all that was necessary to even the playing field. Had Cadance not been cocky and given it all she had got she might have defeated him, but she blew that the moment she decided to talk trash instead of simply going for the kill.

“Come on, Cadance!”

“You can win!”

“We believe in you!”

Cadance closed her eyes. ‘Twilight needs me. I can’t lose focus of that.’ She glanced behind her to look at her sister-in-law. The two of them met eyes, and Cadance felt an outpouring of affection for Twilight. She wasn’t going to allow Twilight to become corrupted again. Once was enough.

Stardust felt her strength increase, pushing him back. ‘Hmm. She’s regained her heart… but for how long?’

‘That’s right. Twilight is precious to me. She has been since she was a little filly.’ Memories flowed through her mind, of pushing Twilight on a swing, or having a tea party or styling each other’s manes. So many happy memories. And it was through that that she was able to meet Shining. They had begun dating, and so many joyful times had come from it. When Shining had proposed to her it had been the happiest moment of her life.

Her journey up to the peak of her best memories suddenly led her to crash down the other side as a new thought came to mind, one not grounded in reality but her own fears: Shining, with a blank expression on his face, being pushed onto a bed as Chrysalis, disguised as her, did unspeakable things to him, stealing intimate times that were reserved for her alone.

Her heart burned, and the fire of passion slowly went out. She couldn’t be thinking about this. It was not the time for it. Twilight! Twilight was what she had to focus on.

‘I can feel her weakening,’ thought Stardust. ‘Her attention is divided. As I expected I just have to wait this out. When her strength weakens enough I’ll brush right past her defenses and take Twilight for my own.’

“Twilight!” came a voice in the distance.

“Hmm?” Stardust turned to the side to look, along with Cadance and most of the rest of them. He sighed in exasperation. Sunset had returned.

Sunset’s legs felt like lead, an overwhelming exhaustion making her want to sleep. Sweat was pouring down her face as she panted. She was here, so close. It had taken every last scrap of willpower she had left, but things would end now.

Stardust didn’t know what she had returned for, but it mattered little to him. She had no place in this contest. She had already served her purpose. He supposed he could take over her body again to boost his power, but it was hardly necessary. With the jewel cracked he also was unsure if he would be able to leave Sunset’s body any time he wanted.

“What a pain. You’re ruining my fun.” He shot a beam in her direction. A red shield appeared around Sunset, deflecting the blow.

“Thank you, Shining,” said Twilight gratefully.

“No problem, Twily,” he said warmly.

“Hmph!” Stardust was irritated again. “Who asked for you to interfere?” His frown turned to a smirk as he lifted his hoof and his horn flashed.

“Whoa!” Shining called out as the ground beneath him rose up until he hit the top of the shield. He let out a gasp of pain, but the pressure stopped there.

“Shining!” called out Twilight, straining to rise. “Are you alright?”

Stardust chuckled. “Don’t worry. He’ll be fine. He’s just trapped. It’s such a shame that your shield isn’t covering the ground beneath you. Very shoddy construction. I shouldn’t have been able to do that.”

Cadance growled. “You monster!”

“Do you hate me, Cadance?” he asked smugly. “I bet you do. Your love magic isn’t going to mix well with the anger and hatred blossoming in your heart.” He began to push harder against her shield. “Can you even still resist me?”

A touch of fear entered into her.

Celestia blasted through some of the earth to try and let gravity free Shining, but it still held him up despite that.

“If you want to free your husband all you have to do is drop your shield. Of course if you do that you’ll just open Twilight to me. What a dilemma.”

Shining wheezed a bit. “C-Cadance, don’t… worry about me. Protect… Twilight. I’ll be fine.”

She didn’t have much of a choice. Even if she expanded the shield to give Shining more room to breathe it wouldn’t change anything as Stardust would just press upward with his spell. It would be a waste of energy. And cancelling her spell entirely was also out of the question. She had to trust that Shining would endure. Stardust at least wasn’t trying to crush or suffocate him with his spell.

There were too many distractions weighing on her mind. She knew it was exactly what he was after, but even so she couldn’t shut her emotions off completely.

Stardust turned to Sunset. Now that Shining was out of the way he could get back to business. Sunset had halved the distance between them, about fifty feet away now. She had come to a stop now, sitting down as she lifted something out of her saddle bag with magic.

Sunset couldn’t walk anymore. She was close enough now. After all, she herself didn’t need to be there. All they needed was the Element. If she got it close enough Celestia could teleport it in. She looked at it for a moment as it floated in front of her. ‘Away you go, little Element. Back to your wielder where you belong.’

Stardust used a spell to enhance his vision, curious what useless thing Sunset was trying. “HUH?” His eyes widened as he recognized the object Sunset was carrying. A churning fear went through him. ‘That darn Sunset!’ He mentally cursed. He absolutely could not let Sunset get that to Twilight.

As the Element began floating Stardust raised his other front hoof, lifting the earth and hitting the Element into the air. He gathered up power and fired a large blast at it.

Cadance saw his distraction, gathering up her energy as well and pushing hard against his shield.

Stardust returned his attention to the battle, equalizing his power with hers. He had just used up a lot of power, but he knew his blast would strike true. All he needed to do was get into her head again and the last threat to his ascension would be gone.

Sunset had been surprised when the Element had gone flying. As she saw it start falling and the energy blast headed right toward it she felt a sense of dread. Their very last hope was about to be destroyed. She couldn’t let that happen. She wouldn't let it happen.

A tear came down her eye. A decisive moment was upon her. It wasn’t even a matter of choice here. There was just one thing to do. Gathering up her courage and determination she forced herself up, adrenaline wiping her fatigue away for a brief moment. She ran forward, jumping into the air and grabbing the Element. She spun around, hugging the Element close to her protectively. She could feel the energy blast right behind her, and she braced herself. So long as the Element was safe that was all that really mattered.

Sunset’s body went flying, propelled along by the energy, before falling out of it a few seconds later. She fell about ten feet, landing hard on her right back leg. The Element went flying out of her hooves a short distance away.

“Sunset!” Twilight yelled as she saw the mare engulfed in the attack. “Nooooo!” She clenched her eyes tight, tears coming down her eyes. Another loss to add to the pile. She slammed her hoof into the ground. “No! Why? Why? WHY?”

Stardust began laughing uproariously. “Well, that’s it for her. That’s one traitor taken care of, huh? You must be so relieved.”

Twilight was breathing heavily, her eyes narrowing. “You… how dare you… how dare you talk about her that way!”

“Are you angry, Twilight? Going to use dark magic again?”

“Mmm!” She didn’t want to use that, but she felt like she had been unconsciously reaching for it again.

“You know something? It doesn’t matter anymore whether I get your body.”

Twilight stared at him, angry and sad, but also confused.

“After all, even if I fail here you’ll never recover from all this. Two dead on your watch. What a horrible, miserable failure of a princess you are! You were unable to protect either one of them.”

Twilight gasped, feeling like she had been struck in the gut.

“Leave her alone!” Cadance cried out, pushing against him.

Stardust allowed himself to be pushed back a bit. “Is that really all you can muster now, Cadance? I guess it really is all over.” Effortlessly he began to walk right through her shield, making it grow smaller and smaller.

“No! Stay back!” she cried out, her voice cracking.

Again he allowed her to shove him away. Her spirit was nearly broken. Soon Twilight would be his. Once he took care of the other three alicorns that might stand in his way and hid the Elements of Harmony there would be absolutely nothing he needed to fear.

Sunset groaned. Somehow, she was still alive, but something was wrong. His spell hadn’t hurt. She couldn’t write it off as her body shutting down her pain receptors because it was too great. Her crash had hurt well enough, the leg she had fallen on throbbing hard.

Her whole body ached. She felt dizzy, and her limbs wouldn’t respond to her will. She had to do something, but she felt so powerless, her spirit too heavy.

How had things turned into such a disaster? All she had wanted was to protect her friends, but once again she failed at everything.

‘Is this really how it’s going to end?’ she thought miserably. ‘That evil thing conquering Equestria? I… I can’t let it end this way!’

She could see the Element of Magic about ten feet in front of her, but it might as well have been ten miles. The best she could manage was a small squirm. It hurt too much to move. She was too exhausted.

“It’s all my fault!” she sobbed, her voice cracking. “If I hadn’t been so stupid this never would have happened! And now, when it matters the most and they’re in danger, I can’t do anything!”

“Well, of course not!” said an angry voice.

Sunset couldn’t believe her eyes. “Rainbow Dash?” she said, blinking. The human one was standing in front of her, her arms crossed.

Chapter 17: Reflections of the heart

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Rainbow Dash was standing there, looking down at her. Not the pony one. That one was still inside Cadance’s barrier. It was the human one. But how could she be in Equestria? Had she come through the portal too?

“Look, Sunset!” she said, “I’m the coolest and most powerful around, but even I know that I can’t do everything alone.”

“That’s right!” said Pinkie Pie, who appeared just as mysteriously. “You need us, just like we need you! That’s what friends are for!”

“So stop beating yourself up, darling,” said Rarity, “because that’s just what that monster wants you to think. It tried to make you think that you were all alone, but we’ve always been here, even if it made you forget with its dark magic.”

“You’re not alone, Sunset!” said Fluttershy, smiling down at her. She put a hand to her chest. “Before you left we all gave you a piece of our hearts. We’ve always been here beside you, cheering you on.” Bending down she put a comforting hand on Sunset’s head, gently rubbing it. “There’s still time for redemption. It’s all up to you.”

“But… but I,” started Sunset, “I’ve done so many terrible things today. There’s no way they’ll forgive me!”

“Whether they will or won’t ain’t the concern here, Sugarcube,” said Applejack. “There are ponies in danger, ponies who only ya'll can help. Like Rarity said, givin’ up is what that thing wants. We’re all here fer ya ta the end.”

Fluttershy nodded. “Applejack’s right. You can’t give up now. We won’t ever let that happen. You fought past all the anger and the hatred and the cold stares of the others to make yourself into a new person once before.”

Rainbow smirked down at her. “Now just do it one more time, and kick some monster butt!”

Rarity said encouragingly, “Being afraid of not being forgiven is what got you into this trouble in the first place, but it shouldn’t stop you from doing the right thing now, not now that you finally got your heart back.”

Pinkie put a hand on her shoulder as well. “Go get him, Sunset! Show him the real power of the magic of friendship.”

Sunset felt tears coming down her eyes. “You’ll stay by my side? You won’t leave me? Even after the things I did today?”

“Of course not!” said Rainbow. “You’re never alone so long as you have us. Stop letting those heavy thoughts weigh you down. It’s time to take action! Now MOVE IT!” She got one of her confident grins on her face, pointing towards the Element on the ground.

Sunset could feel their reassurance, their words melting her despair away. They were right! It was all up to her. Whatever happened in the aftermath could wait. She could feel their hearts alongside hers. A measure of strength returned to her. She wasn’t alone now. Her friends were with her all the way, even through her very worst behavior.

She lifted one of her front legs, pulling as she used one of her back legs to facilitate the movement. When she tried to do the same with the other set she winced in pain as her injured leg throbbed. Ignoring her one bad leg she focused on her three good legs.

She strained her body to its upmost, ignoring the pain as she crawled, inch by inch, toward the Element.

“Come on, Sunset!” “You can do it!” “Don’t give up!” “Just a little further!” “Keep fightin’, Sugarcube!”

She heard the voices of her friends egging her on, making her struggle on despite how much she wanted to just pass out. Before it had felt like it was ten miles away. Now it seemed so much closer.

With one last burst of strength she reached it. Reaching out her hooves she grabbed it. She giggled drunkenly. “Got you!” She tried to use her magic to move the Element but couldn’t get a reaction from her horn. Stymied, she asked, “What should I do now?”

“Put it on,” said Pinkie, “and borrow some power from it.”

Fear overtook her. “I-I can’t! It won’t accept me. The last time I put it on it changed me into a monster!”

Fluttershy said kindly, “The Elements are a reflection of our own hearts. You were a monster inside when you first put it on. Now you’re different. Don’t be afraid, Sunset. Our hearts are with you.”

She lay down on the grass, holding a hand out toward Sunset. The rest of them followed suit, sitting down on the grass as well. Each of them were holding hands, Fluttershy and Rarity each holding a hand toward her. “Six of us, just like it should be. Do it now, Sunset!”

Sunset looked at each of them for a few moments before she extended her two hooves to them, completing the circle.

“It will be alright, Sunset,” said Pinkie encouragingly. “Don’t be afraid.”

Sunset glanced over toward the conflict, seeing Cadance was close to giving out, the monster almost through her barrier. There was no time to debate. Using her magic she lifted the Element of Magic onto her head.

She grimaced, waiting to see what would happen. If she turned into a monster again it really would spell the end of Equestria. The seconds ticked by, but nothing happened. She remained a pony. She let out a long sigh of relief. She looked around to her friends, tears coming down her eyes again. “Thank you, everyone!”

She closed her eyes, focusing her attention on the Element. “Please!” she begged. “Please help! Give me the power to help my friends. I don’t want it for myself. I only want it for them! Please! Just a tiny bit. I don’t want to see Equestria destroyed by that darkness.”

Nothing. There was absolutely no reaction from the Element. Her heart sank. To the end, it seemed she was destined to be a failure. Couldn’t it feel her determination? Her drive to protect others? What was she doing wrong?

“Sunset!” said Applejack. “Yer doin’ it again. Yer not alone, remember?”

“There is no ‘you,’” said Fluttershy, “Because all of us are one.”

“You’re still too much in your head,” said Rarity. “All of us are here too.”

Sunset heard their words, glancing around and seeing their conjoined hands(and in her case, hooves) and was reminded of how she was defeated the first time. She had attacked Twilight, but all Twilight’s friends protected her, unintentionally embodying their Elements despite not actually having them.

“We’re your friends, Sunset!” said Pinkie. “And you’re never alone so long as we’re around.”

“Now do it properly this time!” said Rainbow Dash. “The Elements are all team players. They only show their true power when they work-”

“TOGETHER!” all of them said simultaneously.

She had lost to their unity back then. And now she was in the exact same position as the sixth member. She could feel their unfailing support lifting her up, giving strength to her heart.

A feeling of calm fell over her. She felt she knew what she had to do. She filled her mind with the feelings she had for her friends, letting their love fill her up. Her panic and fear ebbed away, leaving a strange calmness. With her friends in her heart and by her side, what did she really have to fear from Stardust? “Please,” she said quietly, “give us the power to win. There is much more than myself at risk. We’re all fighting as one here for the same goal.”

Her composure suddenly broke as she began to cry. “Please! I’ve lived as a monster, selfish and stupid and evil, betraying the one’s that really cared for me. I don’t want to die a monster too! Give us just a little bit of power. Just enough for us to win! Please…”

It felt like a miracle. She could feel a small trickle of energy going into her body. She got a strange, dazed smile on her face, hardly daring to believe it. “I… WE did it.”

She gathered up the energy inside her, looking towards Stardust. If she attacked him now he would never expect it. Her excitement rose, but quickly fell. She shook her head. That was wrong. As she was just reminded the Elements were team players. They only showed their true power when they were together. It wasn’t her place to claim victory here. Twilight was the true wielder of the Element of Magic, and only she could use the Element to its full potential.

She didn’t need to be a hero in the spotlight. It was enough to know she had done what she had hoped to all along: to help Twilight defeat an evil monster. They didn’t fight side-by-side as she would have liked, but she had been the one to give that final push, to help save the day just when things seemed their most hopeless.

Her horn began to glow. She struggled to concentrate. There was a flash, and the Element disappeared, appearing right near Twilight.

Sunset laughed giddily, her eyes half-lidded. “We… we did it, you guys!” She suddenly noticed the feeling of being held had vanished. She looked around, but her friends had disappeared as mysteriously as they had appeared. “Guys? W-where’d they go?” she mused, but she didn’t have much chance to mull it over.

A feeling of exhaustion passed over her, and her head flopped down, the need to sleep becoming overpowering. She wanted to watch the end of the battle, for Twilight to crush Stardust, but that wasn't in the cards.

‘Thank you… my friends,’ she thought weakly. She had no idea if she was going to wake up again, but she had made her dent. She had delivered the Element back to its true wielder and ensured Equestria would be safe again.

‘Please… Twilight. Stay… a… live.’ With a sigh she closed her eyes, unable to stay awake any longer.

Chapter 18: At last!

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Twilight could see Cadance was struggling hard, slowly being pushed back. Cadance was surely going to give out soon. If it was coming to that, then it meant her time was up. She was too exhausted to use her regular magic, and dark magic was out of the question. Even if she was at full strength she still wouldn’t have the means to stop the Amulet as long as it was immune to physical attacks.

The light of hope, something that had always burned within her no matter how badly things got, was fading quickly. The only means of survival they had now would result in her death.

She didn’t feel prepared for it. She didn’t want to die. She didn’t want to leave her friends. She didn’t want them to bear the burden of loss, especially with what had happened to Spike and Sunset.

There wasn’t much time left, and she wanted to spend it saying her goodbyes. Her heart burned, beating rapidly in her chest. She felt like she was going to break down, her spirit cracking. How had things turned out like this?

As the last dot of light was fading from her heart there was a sudden popping noise and a flash of energy in front of her. An object fell to the ground with a metallic thud. Twilight looked down, and her eyes opened wide in shock. It couldn’t be, but it was! It was the Element of Magic. Confusion assaulted her. How had it got there? Was it another of the Amulet’s tricks, to give her false hope?

A series of images popped into her head, her mind working rapidly: Sunset taking the Element from her and teleporting it away, the injured Sunset teleporting away, Sunset returning carrying something, the Amulet’s sudden change in attitude and attack, and finally Sunset jumping into the air to protect the object from the blow.

Comprehension dawned on her. Sunset hadn’t run away to try and escape punishment, but to retrieve the Element she had stolen earlier to give them the power to win. Sunset had been badly injured before at the end of their clash, and then took another big attack. And yet, she hadn’t died. She still lived on, using the last of her strength to protect them all.

A sob escaped from her as tears blurred her vision. She gulped, saying emotionally, “Sunset!”

Celestia had heard the noise before, but had still been trying to think of some plan she could use. Something about Twilight’s voice caught her attention, believing there was some connection between the sound and Twilight saying Sunset’s name. After all, she had noticed Sunset’s actions too, returning with something she seemed to think would help.

When she spotted the Element on the ground she quietly gasped, realizing as well what it must have cost Sunset to go that far. “Twilight!” she whispered sharply, quickly turning her head forwards again so as not to draw attention, “I understand your feelings on the matter, but if you do not act now Sunset’s sacrifice will only go to waste. Cadance is about to lose. If you truly wish to honor what she gave her life for then defeat Stardust now.”

Twilight looked up at her mentor, letting out a small, “Oh.” She shook her head. Now was not the time to get emotional. She felt strength returning to her, finally feeling a real sense of hope again. She lifted the Element of Magic in her aura, drawing it toward her. She was glad her friends were obstructing his view.

Twilight’s focus broke as the Element sat on her head. A burst of emotions that weren’t hers assaulted her. She could feel immense regret, as well as a sense of joy and love. She was sure these were Sunset’s feelings. Sunset’s heart had been left with it.

Maybe it was just wishful thinking on her part, but she believed that Sunset was encouraging her even now. Her feelings were laid bare, stored in the Element. It was another friend’s spirit beside her, lending her power.

Twilight refused to let Sunset down. She stood up, hope and purpose blazing inside of her, wiping out her exhaustion. She put a hoof to her heart. She was not going to let Sunset die for nothing.

Cadance felt despair starting to eat away at her. Stardust was so close. He had gotten to her emotionally, and she hadn’t been able to bounce back. The fear and doubt inside her had weakened her, exactly as he had intended.

Was this really where it all ended? She thought she could grab Twilight and run, but knew it was a dangerous option no matter what. Stardust would just pick a different host, maybe even Celestia herself. He could also make good on his threat to wipe out Ponyville, but if he got the body of an alicorn under his control the suffering of everyone would be just as great regardless.

“Cadance!” Twilight called out behind her, sounding unusually chipper. “It’s alright now. Just let it go.”

Stardust laughed. “You see? Even your own sister-in-law has accepted her fate. You should do the same.”

Cadance turned to look at Twilight, tears starting to form in her eyes. Shock appeared on her face as she saw Twilight wielding her Element. Twilight didn’t have it before, or she would have used it earlier.

She quickly realized the ‘why’ was unimportant. They now had the means to defeat him. She could get the details later. “Very well,” she said serenely, dropping her shield spell.

“At last!” Stardust said triumphantly, soaring toward Twilight.

Twilight wasn’t afraid anymore. Her friends surrounding her, Sunset’s feelings in her heart… truly, what did she have to fear now? Her horn glowed, a small shield surrounding her.

“You fool! What do you think that will do? I’ll just phase through it like your brother’s spell. You’re just wasting your-”

Twilight’s eyes glowed white with power, and, with a shout, she expanded the shield.

Stardust howled in surprise as he was knocked back. He was confused. He had been in Twilight’s head, and he had a grasp on her variety of spells. He knew for a fact her shield spell was just like her brothers. It would repel anything physical, but not incorporeal things. Cadance was the only one capable of making a shield that blocked anything with malicious intent, solid or not.

“Surprised?” Twilight said with a smirk. “In the end you underestimated friendship, as well as Sunset.”

Stardust glared at her. He had seen Twilight was a quick study, occasionally picking up spells she had only seen once. Had she really learned Cadance’s spell in the nick of time, or was it-

His train of thought stopped, and cold dread filled every fiber of his being. For the first time he was truly afraid. He had finally noticed the Element on Twilight’s head. “N-no! Impossible!” He had blasted Sunset full force while she was already badly injured. He could understand the will to protect someone you cared about, but there were limits even to that amount of inner strength. Sunset couldn’t have survived his attack, and yet the proof was right in front of him that she had, and had even mustered the strength to teleport the Element to Twilight so he wouldn’t notice.

“For someone so evil you really should have been more thorough. If you were going to betray someone that knew the only secret that could stop you then you really should have made sure she was finished earlier. Now you must face the consequences of Sunset’s final act of courage!”

He backed up a step. He hadn’t accounted for this. He had no chance of winning now. Twilight’s shield was protecting the other two alicorns and her brother. There were no other bodies nearby to take. He would have to retreat for the time being and wait for another opportunity to strike. They wouldn’t keep their guards up forever.

In response to Stardust’s step back Twilight took one forward, her smug look turning to hurt and anger. “You took away two things I really cared about. You’re not going to get away with it. Your evil acts end here!” Twilight’s body began to float as she channeled the power of the Elements, after-images of the six Elements pouring out of them.

Stardust thought of threatening Ponyville, or actually destroying it, but that would only infuriate Twilight more. He needed them to get to a point where they’d relax and start going about their daily lives. All he had to do is what he did before, and pick off just one of the Elements wielders. Then it wouldn’t matter what Twilight did. Without the magic of the Elements powering her up Twilight would be nothing.

He turned around and took to the air, using his levitation magic to increase his speed.

“Ah!” cried out Fluttershy. “He’s running!”

“That’s fine!” Twilight said in a relaxed voice. “We don’t need to attack him.”

Despite himself Stardust looked behind him to see what Twilight was talking about.

“His essence may be free to roam beyond the confines of that jewel, but he’s still firmly attached to it.” A rainbow emerged from their bodies, connecting the six of them. “Attack the jewel! All his energy is inside it. Without it he’s powerless.”

Stardust’s eyes opened in horror as the rainbow light headed straight for his housing. “NO!” He turned around, zooming toward the jewel. In his panic he didn’t even think to just teleport the jewel to him.

He grabbed the jewel, taking off again, but he was too late. He screamed as he was engulfed in the rainbow light. He couldn’t get away, and his essence slowly disappeared toward the jewel. As the rainbow light faded the jewel fell to the ground. Cracking sounds came from it, and then it shattered completely.

Twilight slowly landed. She took the Element off her head, sitting down and hugging it close to her. “Sunset!” It was truly over now. Stardust was gone completely. She broke down crying. “Spike!”

Shining, Cadance, and the rest of Twilight’s friends surrounded her, hugging her and crying as well. They were now free to mourn.

Celestia walked over to Sunset, standing over her fallen pupil. Sunset had made so many mistakes in her life, but in the end it seemed she had got it right. She knelt down, pushing Sunset onto her back. It was highly unlikely, but maybe, just maybe…

She put a hoof on Sunset’s chest, and for a moment that took an eternity she waited. She could feel a heartbeat. Sunset’s chest was slowly going up and down. She was badly injured, but Sunset was still alive.

Tears came down her eyes. “Sunset is still alive!” she said contentedly.

Twilight immediately looked up. “Are you sure, Princess?”

“Yes! Her heartbeat is faint, but she’s not dead.”

She was gratified to hear that. “Thank goodness.”

Rarity pulled away from their group hug. “Applejack, can you come with me for a moment?”

Applejack pulled away too. “What for?”

“Please!” she said desperately.

“Okay, then,” she said, confused, following Rarity towards the body of Spike.

Applejack looked mournfully down at him. “So what is it, Rarity? Hey!”

She grabbed Applejack in her magic, pulling her closer and lifting her hoof. She set Applejack’s hoof on Spike’s chest. “Please!” she said in a broken voice. “Please tell me I’m not crazy! Please tell me you hear it too! I need to know I’m not the only one!”

Applejack was too freaked at first to listen, thinking Rarity was forcing her to touch a corpse. As Rarity’s words sank in she stopped struggling, hoping it meant what she thought it did. Focusing all her attention she could feel a gentle thump against her hoof.

She felt like she was going to melt, her legs getting weak. “I… I can feel it!” Tears brimmed in her eyes. “I can feel it too!”

Rarity almost fell on Applejack as she hugged her friend. “Thank goodness!”

The two of them hugged, but they knew they couldn’t keep the good news secret forever.

“Twilight! Twilight!” Applejack screamed.

Twilight looked behind her. “What is it?” she asked, seeing their unusually happy expressions.

“Spike’s not dead, either!”

Twilight almost fainted, feeling like a small breeze would be enough to knock her over. She got up, running over to him. She grabbed his body, and she felt it for herself, the beating of his heart and the slow breaths making his chest go up and down.

“He… he really is alive!” she sobbed out, crying uncontrollably.

All of them looked around at each other with tired grins.

“So no one is dead, after all,” said Fluttershy. “What a relief.”

***

Sunset let out a little groan, starting to regain consciousness.

“-et? Sun-et?-He-“

Sunset could hear something, her body being gently shaken, parts of words as if from a far distance from a badly tuned radio.

As she regained consciousness the soreness in her body became apparent again. She forced her eyes open a little, everything looking blurry.

As her vision began to clear she found herself looking into the face of Princess Celestia, bent over with concern on her face.

Waking up more and more, the memories returned. The worry in Celestia’s eyes made Sunset feel terrible. Why did Celestia still care about her? This was twice now she had been consumed by darkness. She had killed Spike. Tried to kill Twilight. Tried to kill her! And yet… and yet… Celestia was still looking down at her with love and compassion. Why? Why?

The words of the Alicorn Amulet came back to her. Without its influence his accusations felt so ridiculous. She knew Celestia was good all along. It was only her silly pride that had been weighing her down all this time.

She didn’t know what was going to happen next, whether she would be imprisoned or banished or executed or tortured. No matter what the future held she didn’t want to hold back anymore.

“P-P-Princess?” she said, her voice coming out raspy.

“Good, you’re awake,” Celestia said, sounding relieved.

Tears began to stream down her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” She began sobbing, almost gasping for breath, but still she kept repeating the words, feeling so freeing.

Celestia was momentarily stunned at Sunset’s rush of emotions, before getting a sense of déjà vu. She thought of her sister, and how wonderful it felt to get her back.

“That will do, Sunset.” Using her wings she lifted Sunset up, hugging her to herself. “Welcome home, Sunset. I’ve missed you so much!”

Sunset saw the joyful tears coming down Celestia’s eyes and lost all control, bawling her eyes out as she held tight to her former mentor, all pain forgotten.

Twilight paused in her crying for a moment. It had been terribly difficult to get to that point, but Sunset and Celestia were finally reunited properly. The two were embracing one another. Sunset was seeing how silly all her fears and worries had been.

“Way to go, Sunset,” she said joyfully. Just knowing that Spike was still alive was enough to allow her to fully appreciate the magnitude of that reconciliation.

Chapter 19: Aftermath

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Everything was truly over this time. Stardust was gone, and Sunset and Spike were both alive.

A sour feeling went through Twilight as a thought came to mind. Trying to keep an accusatory tone out of her voice she turned to Rarity and said, “You knew Spike was alive the whole time?”

Rarity blushed as all eyes turned to her. In as gracious a voice as she could muster she said, “Yes, I did.”

The curious eyes around her grew angry.

“WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL US?” Rainbow shouted, not feeling nearly as tolerant as Twilight.

Sunset and Celestia turned to the commotion.

“All of us… we were in so much pain,” Pinkie said, tears coming down her eyes.

“And you kept the truth from us?” Even Fluttershy was feeling betrayed.

Rarity’s face burned brighter, but she kept her composure. “I knew it was wrong, and I felt guilty about it, but I don’t regret my decision.”

Twilight wanted to become furious, but with all that had been going on she was sick of anger. It still took a great effort to remain calm. “So why did you conceal the truth? Why didn’t you tell any of us that Spike was alive?”

Sunset gasped. “REALLY?” she called out, hobbling towards the rest of the group. She could only walk on three legs, but she didn’t care. “Spike is alive?”

Celestia joined the rest of the group as well. “I’m sure you had your reasons, and I think we all deserve to hear what they were.” She was also struggling not to be accusatory.

Tears shined in Rarity’s eyes. “I did it for your sakes.”

Applejack’s eyebrow went up. “How do ya figure?”

“Sunset and Twilight both changed when Spike was attacked. Sunset became indifferent to collateral damage and threatened to take care of us too.”

Sunset winced, turning away.

“Twilight lost control of her power and even resorted to dark magic in an attempt to take Sunset down.”

Twilight similarly felt a weight in her chest.

“There was so much going on that I barely had the chance to think. I just kept talking to Spike, encouraging him to hang on. This whole time I was waiting for Spike to regain consciousness. If that happened I felt it would have been safe then to tell you.

“I didn’t even know if Spike was truly alive or I was just imagining it, but I didn’t want to get your hopes up. In the middle of this gigantic battle I doubted Sunset would have let us leave to get medical care for Spike after she changed. And if it turned out him being alive was just in my head or he wasn’t going to survive until the end of the battle I didn’t want to make all of you experience that pain a second time. I decided to take it all on my back.”

Cadance ran a hoof through her mane. “Be that as it may, when you saw what Twilight was willing to resort to in her pain wouldn’t that have been a fine time to clue her in?”

Rarity let out a slow breath. “Well… we had to win, didn’t we? Twilight couldn’t bring herself to fight with all she had until she became enraged, and it put all of us at risk because of it. If I had told her Spike was alive she would have stopped fighting to look after him.

“And as for Sunset we all know that the longer one uses the Alicorn Amulet the worse they get. When she first thought she had killed Twilight she seemed upset, but then brushed it off and kept going. I had no reason to believe this would be any different. She might have even finished Spike off out of spite for getting in the way of her ‘saving’ Twilight.”

Twilight felt another blow to her heart. She might not have had to use dark magic if she had been willing to fight to kill. “I… you’re right about that. I hesitated too much. That was what led to Spike getting hurt.” She snuggled Spike, wincing slightly at the look of his injuries. “This is my fault, and I have to take responsibility for it.”

“No, Twilight!” Sunset said strongly. “It’s my fault! I was the one that put on the Alicorn Amulet. I didn’t know that it was going to corrupt me like that, but it doesn’t change the fact that none of this would have happened without me.”

“I think,” said Celestia in a meaningful tone, “that we should forget about who is to blame right now. Spike needs to get to the hospital before his injuries really do turn fatal.”

None of them could argue against that. As Twilight stood up she got a thoughtful look on her face. “Princess Celestia?”

“Yes, Twilight?”

She had a half-smile on her face, curious but hopeful. “Are the Elements of Harmony only an offensive power?”

“What do you mean, Twilight?”

“If the Elements are supposed to promote harmony, then do they only have to be used against enemies?” Her voice grew excited and filled with anticipation. “For example, could they heal Spike’s wounds?” All of them were interested now, and they all turned to Celestia for the answer.

Celestia was intrigued. “Truth be told… I don’t know. The Elements of Harmony are our strongest weapon, and thus have only been used against those with evil intentions.

“Your assertion is a little off though. The Elements are not technically an offensive power, as they do not harm the target. They either incapacitate them or purge the darkness from them. Luna was sealed away when I used them, and then freed of her darkness the second time when all of you used them. Discord was likewise sealed inside stone, and then Sunset was also freed of her darkness. The reason Stardust was destroyed was because he was nothing but darkness and he didn't have a proper body anyway.

"I’d say your theory is plausible, but the only way to know for sure is to try it. Worst comes to worst nothing happens to him, as I don’t think Spike has any real darkness within him to be purged. The Elements are within your control, so they should follow your will. If you want Spike to be healed that would certainly increase the feeling of harmony around us.”

Twilight nodded. “Let’s give it a shot. We’re going to need to combine all our hearts together, every single one of us, not just the six of us with the Elements. Our power is at our greatest when we all work together.”

Sunset squirmed guiltily. “T-Twilight?” she said in a small voice.

“Yes, Sunset?” she said as the others got into a circle.

“C-can… I mean… d-do you… do you think I can help out too?”

“Are you joking?” she said harshly.

Sunset flinched. She should have expected that. Why would Twilight want anything to do with her now?

“Did I not JUST say that we ALL need to combine our powers?” Her horn glowed, and pulled Sunset next to her, putting her hoof out.

Sunset took Twilight’s hoof, relieved. On her other side was Celestia.

All of them were holding hooves, and so they were all lifted into the air as the Elements powered up.

Each of them thought of Spike in their heads.

Pinkie thought of things like co-hosting the narration for the Running of the Leaves, and playing a practical joke on him that gave him the hiccups.

Rainbow thought of the silly performance they had done together when she got bored studying with Twilight for the Wonderbolts Exam. She was moving around on her stool and Spike was playing a little drum.

Fluttershy thought of the first day they had met, when she discovered that not all dragons were scary.

Rarity thought of the feelings he had for her, and how he had confessed his love when he thought they might be falling to their doom.

Cadance and Shining thought of how he had helped to save the entire Crystal Empire from King Sombra by getting the Crystal Heart.

Celestia thought of his early days as a baby, when she was raising him before Twilight.

Twilight had too many memories to count flashing through her head, but the one most prevalent of all was the one that had happened that day: Spike saving her life. He had taken the attack that would have killed her had he not intervened. She couldn’t be prouder of him than that.

Sunset had no real memories with Spike like the others, but she knew how much he meant to everyone else, and she didn’t want him to be taken away from them for her mistake. She wanted him to be there for them.

Their lights all flew into the air and then came back down like a waterfall. Spike was lifted up into the air along with them, covered in a bright rainbow light that circled around him.

‘Please, Spike!’ thought Twilight. ‘Come back to us.’

‘Spike!’ ‘Spike!’ ‘Spike!’ They all kept him firmly in their thoughts, their wish clear to heal their friend.

After another few seconds the process ended, and they slowly landed back onto the ground.

Hopeful and full of anticipation they all opened their eyes.

Twilight let out a shuddering breath. Spike was intact again. The black burn marks all over his back were gone, and his scales had been regrown. He was unrecognizable as ever being injured in the first place.

Twilight approached him, kneeling over him. She shook him gently. “Spike! Spike! Wake up!”

They all waited with bated breath. The Elements of Harmony had never let them down before. And this time it wasn’t just the six of them. They had had four additional hearts giving them strength.

“Come on, Spike. It’s okay now. Wake up, please!”

From a far distance her words slowly reached out to him. It took a few minutes, but his eyelids fluttered, and all he saw was a blurry purple mass. “T-Twilight?” he muttered out.

Twilight gasped, her expression warm. “Oh, Spike! I’m so happy!”

Once again she descended into a sobbing wreck, but out of joy this time.

Spike’s memories were hazy. Before he could try to process things he was suddenly surrounded by ponies hugging him and crying.

“We thought you were gone!” Pinkie cried out, squeezing tighter.

That triggered something in his mind; a sense of dread as a helpless Twilight was about to be attacked. He had jumped in the way to protect her, and that was his last clear memory. The pain of the attack drove everything out of his mind before he collapsed.

Though Spike was conscious and his wounds were healed he still felt tired. “You won, Twilight?” he asked quietly.

She nodded, looking down at him. “Yes, Spike. We all won, thanks to your heroism.”

“That’s great.” He rested his head against her, closing his eyes.

She knew he would need some time. The physical damage had been healed, but the emotional and mental damage wouldn’t just go away. She didn’t want to erase the memory from his mind, either. He had saved her life. What right did she have to delete that from his memories, even if he’d be better off not remembering all the rest?

“Hmm?” Celestia looked over as she saw ponies hesitantly approaching all of them.

One gray-colored mare was shivering slightly. “I-Is it all over?”

“That was freaky!” said a brown-coated stallion. “What was that monster?”

Lifting her head Celestia said in a regal, soothing voice, “The danger is over, my little ponies. That monster is gone and he won’t be back.”

A colt, hiding behind his mother, asked, “Are you sure?”

“Quite sure, little one. The Elements of Harmony have saved the day once again.”

“When I left with the Element I was surprised to see no one around,” said Sunset, pulling away from their group hug. The rest of them did the same, except for Twilight. “I guess they were all hiding in their houses.”

“Is… is Twilight alright?” asked a green-coated pony. “I was watching the battle before, but when it looked like Twilight was taken over by that thing I hightailed it out of there to hide.”

Twilight flushed. “Yes, I’m fine now. That creature was extremely skilled at manipulating other ponies feelings. Even I was not immune to it.” Looking around she said, “That’s what good friends are for. They stopped me from making a big mistake.”

“So what do we do from here?” asked Applejack.

“For now,” said Celestia, “I think we need to do some damage control. Twilight and Sunset made quite a mess of the park, and the citizens of Ponyville need to be reassured that everything is alright.” She coughed a few times. “I can’t remember the last time I used this, but it seems the fastest way to go about things.”

Taking in a deep breath, she used the Royal Canterlot Voice to say, “CITIZENS OF PONYVILLE, PLEASE COME OUT OF YOUR HOUSES! THE DANGER HAS PASSED! COME TO THE TOWN SQUARE BY CITY HALL AND I WILL FILL YOU ALL IN THERE!”

Twilight giggled a bit. Her ears were ringing, but she couldn't help but smile. She had never seen Celestia shout like that.

Celestia walked over to Twilight and Spike, bending over and giving Spike a nuzzle. “You should stay here for now, Twilight. I’ll handle the public. I know there is much you might want to ask, and there are things that I need to say, but we’ll deal with all that a little later.

“You just spend time with Spike and your friends.” She winked. “That’s an order.”

Twilight let out a heavy breath and nodded. “Yes, Princess Celestia.” That sounded like just what she needed at the moment.

“Cadance, Shining… I’d like you two to come with me.”

Shining’s eyes darted to Twilight. “But I want-”

“I understand, Shining, but as I currently don’t have any of my guards with me it would look more appropriate to have you by my side. The needs of others must come before ourselves. As the former captain of my Royal Guard I hope you still live that philosophy.”

Shining hesitated a few seconds, then reluctantly tore his eyes from Twilight back to her. “Yes, Princess.”

Cadance gave him a gentle slap on the cheek. “Don’t frown so much. We’ll be back before long. We need to give courage to the people in Twilight’s stead. If you’re that concerned for Twilight then you should hurry up and just get all this over with.”

“Okay, okay, I get it.” Shining turned around and walked up to Twilight, giving her a kiss on the forehead. “I’ll be back soon, Twily.”

“I’ll be okay, Shiny,” she replied, giving him a warm smile.

“Sunset Shimmer,” Celestia said gently.

She flinched like Celestia had shouted. “Y-yes?” she replied meekly.

“Behave yourself, will you? There are things I want to discuss with you as well.”

“Understood,” she replied, bowing her head.

The three of them headed off to town hall.

Fluttershy fell to the ground, letting out a big sigh. “I’m exhausted. I can’t believe everything that went on today.”

Applejack joined her. “Same here. It’s not even noon, but it feels like that fight went on all day.”

“Well, let’s not think about that right now,” said Rarity, sitting down next to Spike, her eyes moist. “We’re all safe and sound. That’s the most important thing. Everything else can wait until Shining and the Princesses come back.”

“A part of me wants to throw a celebration party,” said Pinkie, sitting on the grass, “but the other part of me just isn’t up to it.”

Rainbow rubbed Pinkie’s shoulder. “Hey, hey! That doesn’t sound like the Pinkie I know. A party might be just what we need to brighten the atmosphere after such a dreary morning.”

Pinkie joined Applejack and Fluttershy, laying back on the ground and looking up at the sky. “Maybe a little later. I could sure go for a party, but not right now.”

Sunset had been watching the group from a short distance away, and Pinkie’s statement made her insides hurt. Pinkie never let an opportunity for a party go by. Looking around the park she saw it barely recognizable as a park. Almost all the trees had been knocked down, the fountain was broken, the lake had been emptied, and black patches and holes in the ground were everywhere.

She had caused all this. By some freak stroke of luck she had survived, but she really wished she hadn’t. Words from the Alicorn Amulet, Stardust, rang in her ears. Everything he had said to get on her side seemed so foolish and stupid now. How had she not seen what he was from the start? How had she not recognized that everything he was saying were just things that she herself had thought at one time or another in the past?

During lonely nights, bitter and angry or upset, she would reflect back on Celestia’s history, especially when she learned about Twilight. She had thought it odd how so many enemies had come out of the woodwork once Twilight had moved to Ponyville, but in retrospect Luna’s return as Nightmare Moon had been foretold a long time ago. Discord and Sombra’s return could be attributed to Twilight and her friends becoming the new bearers of the Elements of Harmony, thus weakening the spells Celestia put on them. If the Elements followed the will of their wielders, then Twilight, not knowing about Discord or Sombra, would have no reason to want them to stay sealed away.

Celestia put Twilight in dangerous situations as a means of testing her. One could look at it as Celestia being callous and indifferent to her student’s health, or it could be that Celestia just had absolute faith in Twilight’s abilities.

Stardust had presented everything in such a narrow way, which portrayed Celestia as a monster. She couldn’t exactly blame him. In some ways he was right. His words came from her own thoughts. If she had had the courage to allow herself to feel angry and truly considered all the angles Celestia’s actions could be taken she might have resolved her feelings much earlier. She could have gone to Celestia truly wanting to apologize, not just because she felt she should.

All those mistakes were hers. Had she just been honest and dealt with her feelings instead of hiding them away Stardust would not have found his way into her heart so easily. He wouldn’t have had enough leverage to turn her to his whims.

These were all her mistakes, and she had to decide where to go from here. She wanted to run. She wanted to cry. She wanted to pretend nothing ever happened. She wanted to find a dark corner and hide. She knew none of those options would solve anything, but there were a lot of emotions she had to deal with.

Her mind turned to her human world friends, and she felt another stabbing pain in her heart. How could she ever face them again? She had left with high hopes, to resolve her past misdeeds. In the end, all she really accomplished was adding to them. For most of the battle everyone except Rarity thought Spike was dead. She had nearly killed Twilight several times. She nearly killed Celestia. Stardust had taken over Twilight’s body, leading her to nearly commit murder herself, as well as freed Stardust from his crystal prison.

It was true that Stardust would have prevailed if she hadn’t gotten the Element back, but they had only been placed in that situation because of her. She had simply cleaned up the mess she herself had spilled.

‘Even the Elements of Harmony couldn’t purge the monster out of you,’ she thought. ‘Stardust said something like that earlier. I guess he was right.’ She could feel her heart beating, despair eating away at her. What place was there for her anymore after what she had done? She was a danger to everyone no matter where she went from here.

She was scared, gasping for breath. She felt like an endless black void was swallowing her up. Wouldn’t it be better… if she wasn’t around?

“Sunset. Hey! Sunset!”

“Huh?” Sunset looked around, once more in Ponyville Park. Everyone was staring at her, and again she saw worry and concern like in Celestia’s eyes.

“What’s wrong, Sunset?” asked Twilight. She patted the ground next to her. “Come sit down with us.”

Since Twilight’s magic was exhausted Rarity used her levitation to pull Sunset over. “Yes, darling. You’re looking paler than my coat.”

Sunset, far from feeling reassured, just felt worse. “WHY?” she yelled. “Why aren’t you cursing my name?” Tears began streaming down her face. “I… I did so many terrible things to all of you.” Her head flopped down, and she buried it in her hooves. “W-why are you treating me like someone decent? I’m… I’m just a monster. It’s all I’ve ever been. Today just proved it!” She sobbed into her hooves, trembling.

Twilight turned her head. “Rarity, can you…” She gestured to Spike.

Rarity nodded, pulling Spike over to her lap.

Twilight put a hoof on Sunset’s back, gently rubbing it. “Sunset, you’re not a monster. You just made a mistake like any of us might have.”

Sunset looked up at her sharply. “Would you still be saying that if Spike hadn’t made it? Huh? Can you honestly say you wouldn’t hate me if Spike hadn’t survived? That’s the one and only reason you’re willing to tolerate me right now.”

Twilight was stuck coming up with a response at first. Knowing that Spike was going to be fine certainly brightened everything up. Still… “That’s not true, Sunset. At the end there, when I thought you had been killed by Stardust I was upset, and especially when the Element arrived to me. I thought it was your final act.”

“And you probably wish it had been!” Sunset spat out, self-loathing permeating every fiber of her being. “The noble sacrifice that would have allowed me to be remembered as a hero. What a joke! I shouldn’t have survived!”

“Sunset!” Twilight said in shock, not liking where this was going. “Please don’t say that!”

“Why shouldn’t I? It’s true!”

As Twilight went to speak Rainbow gave her a shove. “Twilight, you’re far too gentle for this.”

“What do you-AH!” She gasped as Rainbow gave Sunset a hard smack.

Sunset recociled, her cheek burning from the impact.

Rainbow flipped the mare on her back, standing over her and pinning Sunset’s front legs with her own. “That’s ENOUGH! Enough of you and your self-pitying crap! I’m tired of hearing it!”

“Rainbow Dash, be gentle!” Fluttershy said.

Rainbow ignored her. “You want to know something? You could have died doing what you did. You chose to come back and try to make things right. Somehow or another you’re alive, and you should be far more grateful about it.”

“G-grateful?” Sunset replied weakly.

“YES!” Rainbow yelled. “GRATEFUL!

“Spike lived and is fine. Twilight isn’t possessed by some freaky monster. All of us are alive and well and that thing is gone! So what you caused all of this because you put on a necklace. If the worst that’s left of this incident is a couple of holes in the park we can always rebuild that.

“Nobody died! And that’s the only important thing here. And since they didn’t YOU, Sunset, have the opportunity to make up for the damage you’ve caused. You can make yourself into a better mare. You can’t change your past, so you can show that you’ve LEARNED SOMETHING from all of this so you can make a better future.

“So shut up! Stop whining! And be glad that there’s no permanent damage caused by your error. That’s all!” With that Rainbow got off her and silently fumed as she moved a short distance away.

They all seemed to let out a collective breath. After a few moments Applejack helped Sunset up to a sitting position. “Sunset, I have ta agree with Rainbow on this one. What’s ya bein’ dead gonna accomplish now? We all achieved this victory together. We couldn’t have won without you.”

“That’s right!” said Pinkie, hopping up and down. “You might have started this, but we couldn’t have finished it without you.”

“Please, Sunset,” Twilight said, hugging her. “Don’t lose yourself again. It had to have been difficult to do what you did with all your injuries. When I put on the Element of Magic I could feel your heart in it. I know just how much you suffered when you realized you were just being used.

“There’s no point in dwelling on the ‘What if’s’ in life. It will only make you miserable. All you have is right now, and I’m glad you survived and finally got to do what you wanted all along.”

Sunset felt another hug, and her vision went blurry as she saw it was Spike. Even he was willing to give her another shot when he should despise her most of all. The rest of them joined in, surrounding her with hooves and claws.

She was feeling something familiar. When she thought she couldn’t go on earlier her friends had appeared to her, offering their hearts to help her continue on. Now, before her eyes, the pony versions were doing the same thing. She felt like they should hate her and not want to associate with her, but they were doing just the opposite. They were bringing her closer and melding their hearts with her, not wanting her to give up.

She felt like her sanity was on the edge, and she had no choice but to rely on all of them now. She hadn’t died. Before her were endless opportunities to do better than before. There was still time to make up for her mistakes and show how remorseful she truly was.

She started bawling again, overwhelmed by their support of her. Even after everything that had happened they didn’t abandon her. She recalled something she said to the human Rainbow during her struggle to return the Element. “You’ll stay by my side? You won’t leave me? Even after the things I did today?”

“Of course not!” said Rainbow. “You’re never alone so long as you have us. Stop letting those heavy thoughts weigh you down.”

‘I’m not alone,’ Sunset thought, her heart lifting a bit, pulling her out of the pit she was sinking into. ‘I’m not alone! I’M NOT ALONE!’

When they broke apart Sunset looked around at each of them, lost for words to express just how grateful she was for them. They had every right to hate her guts, but they still held tightly to her, considering her a friend. In the end, she didn’t think she needed to say anything. There were times when words were unnecessary, and now felt like one of them.

About twenty minutes later Celestia, Shining, and Cadance returned.

Shining picked up the pace as they came into view. He ran over to Twilight, hugging her. “You’re really okay, Twilight?”

She hugged him back. “Yes, Shining. I’m okay.”

“Now then…” Celestia gathered magic in her horn, enveloping them all in a yellow aura. With a flash they disappeared, reappearing in Celestia’s room.

“All the distractions have been taken care of, so I want to focus on all of you. I’m sure you must have questions, and there are things I want to say as well. First, though, I think we should take care of Sunset’s injuries.”

Sunset felt awkward, but she knew if she resisted they would all override her. “Okay, Princess.”

Chapter 20: Stardust Flare

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“Ow!” Sunset grimaced as the bandage tightened around her injured back hoof. Using a stick as a splint Celestia continued wrapping Sunset’s hoof.

When it was finished Sunset tested her leg. She could walk a little better, but she was still wiped out by the day’s events.

All of them sat in a circle. Celestia put a wing on Sunset’s shoulder. “Sunset, I want to hear your story. I want to hear the truth of how this all began.”

Sunset looked up at her, then nodded. “Alright.” She looked down at the floor of the room. “Well, I guess… the most honest thing of all to say… is…”

Stardust’s words rang in her ears. “Deep down, whether you want to admit it or not, you never wanted to apologize to Celestia; The truth, the REAL truth, is that you don’t believe you were in the wrong for what you did. You came back… because you felt OBLIGATED to, not because you genuinely thought you should.”

A lot of things he said had been lies and twisted words, but some of it was based on truth. She took a deep breath and looked up at Celestia again. “The honest truth is that I resented you for what you did. And a part of me resented Twilight too.”

“I see…” Celestia gave a short nod. “I expected as much.”

“I was your student, excelling in all things. Then you began to distance yourself from me. I thought I had done something to displease you, and tried working harder and harder to regain your approval. If you had just told me that you wanted me to make friends then this could have all been avoided. I would be sitting where Twilight is now, having accomplished all the great things she did, like freeing your sister from the darkness, or becoming an alicorn.”

“But would you really?” Celestia replied gently. “Keep in mind that Twilight actually ignored my orders to make friends when I told her to.”

“She did?” Sunset asked.

“I did?” Twilight said at the same time.

“Initially,” said Celestia. “As Luna’s banishment neared its end I sent you to Ponyville with the hope you’d discover the Elements of Harmony. Of course without the light of friendship in your heart and other ponies to wield them they would have been nigh useless in your solitary hooves. By myself I could use the Elements, but I only succeeded in sealing her away. I could not free her from the darkness like you did.

“You basically ignored everyone that tried to befriend you, and only grudgingly allowed your future friends to come along with you. Had they not come to you and followed along then what would have happened once you got to the castle? It was only through the trials you went through together that made you start to see how good friendship could feel. So in actuality telling Twilight to make friends turned out no differently than if I hadn’t said it at all.”

“I guess you have a point there,” said Twilight. “I didn’t think making friends should take precedence over protecting Equestria. I should have known you wouldn’t assign me a task for no reason.”

“If I had told you back then to make friends to power the Elements of Harmony you certainly would have put in the effort specifically for that purpose, but not for the sake of actually being friends. And thus with no true sense of unity they would have been useless among you.”

Celestia paused, taking in a slow breath. “I am old, but even I am not without my flaws. There are times I don’t spell everything out for the sake of letting my students learn things for themselves. It was my hope that by spending less time with you, Sunset, that you’d take more notice of your fellow students and begin to bond with them, much like Twilight did. Ultimately that didn’t pan out, and you abandoned me completely.

“I was very proud of you for what you had achieved, and I said so. I really did think you might be the one I was searching for, the one best suited to wield the Elements of Harmony. However, I do admit that I failed you. I failed you in a big way.”

“And what way was that?” Sunset replied, a bit of an edge in her voice.

“I was too generous with my compliments and praise. Because your talent was real and your grades were excellent I couldn’t exactly take back anything I had said, but I wound up giving you a swelled head. Your ego caused you to look down on everyone else for not doing everything on their own. I made sure not to repeat that same mistake with Twilight.

“It was never my intention to cause you such pain, and for that I am sorry.”

Sunset had a funny feeling in her chest. Somehow, she felt that that was all she really wanted. She wanted to hear Celestia take responsibility for her failings. She nuzzled into Celestia’s side. “I forgive you.”

Twilight pulled Spike closer to her, wanting to hug something. Spike was a little more awake now, but he still didn’t want to strain himself.

Sunset sat up straight. “Truth be told I felt that I was in the right for what I did. I thought Celestia was being unreasonable. I functioned just fine in the human world. After the darkness in my heart was extinguished and I spent time being friends with Twilight’s human world versions of her friends I felt kinda bad for what I had done in the past. It only felt right to apologize for leaving and stealing the Element.

“Even though I told myself I should and it was the right thing to do, the truth is that I didn’t really want to. I was still angry at Celestia, but because of what my anger had led to last time I pushed it down and ignored it. I grew fearful of those feelings, and so I tried to pretend they weren’t there. Because I couldn’t acknowledge my true feelings, and because I was too afraid to tell my friends, I was easily taken in by Stardust’s story.”

“Who is this Stardust fella anyways?” asked Applejack.

“That thing… it said that it was Starswirl the Bearded, and that Celestia sealed him away and called him a traitor for trying to become an alicorn with the power of the amulet. Is there any truth to that?”

Twilight looked horrified that a pony she had looked upon as a hero could have betrayed her mentor. “That was just another lie it told, right? Princess?”

Princess Celestia had a mournful look on her face. She sighed. “It’s close to the truth, with the key details changed. The pony I sealed away was NOT Starswirl. It was his apprentice, Stardust Flare.”

“Starswirl had an apprentice?”

“Starswirl was an extraordinarily gifted unicorn, creating a great number of the spells we still use today. He could spend weeks or months studying a spell, modifying it endlessly until he deemed it perfection. Like you, he had a great love of learning for its own sake. He created spells for the sake of opening up the world and its principles, to better understand how things related to other things. That his passion helped out other ponies was simply a beneficial side-effect.”

“I remember…” Twilight paused, thinking of the past. “You said the reason I could become an alicorn but Starswirl could not was because he didn’t have friends like I do. Are you trying to say he didn’t care about others?”

Celestia shook her head. “Not at all. He was much like you. You cared about others, but you pushed them to the side in pursuit of furthering your education and knowledge. However, unlike you, he never grew out of that. He was held in high regard by scholars and the upper-crust for his contributions, but he was reclusive and didn’t talk to other ponies that often. I was lucky to see him every half a year, if he was creating a new spell. When he was taking a break he was more open, but some new thing would always catch his eye before long.”

“So where does this Stardust fella come into this?” asked Rainbow.

Sunset spoke up. “Well, before we continue the story I have one question: do you think it was wrong for others to want to become an alicorn? The old me would likely dismiss it as just a selfish act on your part, not wanting too many alicorns around as it would weaken your position as princess. The current me doesn’t understand it.”

Celestia said, “Well, I can answer that easily enough. Power is a dangerous thing in the hooves of those that aren’t able to handle it. If everyone was an alicorn it would be a form of equality, but it would also cause disharmony, as many would feel they have a right to power. Imagine how things would have been different had you been an alicorn when we had our falling out. You might not have ran away, but chose to fight.”

Sunset set her head down, letting out a thoughtful “Mmm.”

Celestia looked out the window thoughfully. “We always want to trust those near to us, but they don’t always have the best intentions. That is why power must only be given to those that can handle it responsibly. All of our greatest foes and threats to Equestria have come from those that sought to use power to subjugate others and harm them, whether physically or emotionally. Stardust is one such example.”

“Princess?” Fluttershy said quietly.

“Yes, Fluttershy?”

“Was Stardust always like that?”

“I honestly can’t say.” She looked at Fluttershy, continuing, “Stardust was Starswirl’s apprentice, not mine, so I didn’t have much contact with him except when I’d go to visit Starswirl. As I said earlier Starswirl was someone completely devoted to his work and studying. It wouldn’t surprise me if he missed Stardust’s true intentions. Of course, Stardust could have started out like Sunset or Twilight, then went down the wrong path.”

“I have a question,” said Sunset.

“Yes?” Celestia replied, turning to look at her.

“Stardust was obviously lying about who he actually was, but I think most of the story he told about who he was is accurate. I want to know as much of the real truth as possible, so I want to tell you what he told me.”

Celestia nodded. “Very well.”

“He said that he wanted to study even more powerful and advanced spells, and, as he didn’t want there to be collateral damage he would only entrust new spells to himself alone until they were perfected. He, however, had reached his limits magically. The only way to study those kinds of spells on his own was to gain more power. Thus, he wanted to achieve alicornhood, which would give him the necessary boost he desired and allow him to keep practicing in relative solitude.

“At some point before the spell was completed he told Celestia about it, who tried to discourage him from doing it. Starswirl ignored these warnings and kept toiling towards creating a working spell. At some point he found the jewel that become the center of the amulet, and began infusing it with as much power as he could.

“When he had completed the spell and was about to try it out Celestia barged in, accused him of treason, and sealed his spirit inside the Amulet. Pretending to have no knowledge of Starswirl’s fate Celestia named a wing of the library after him, pretending to honor him.”

Twilight looked put out. “Princess… is that true? Did you really have a falling out with Starswirl?”

Celestia slowly breathed in, then just as slowly let it out. “More lies,” she said dispassionately. “He really knew how to twist things.”

“So… none of that is true?” she said hopefully.

“Replace Starswirl with Stardust and you’ll have the truth.”

“What do you mean?” asked Rarity, rubbing Spike’s forehead.

For a moment Celestia let her rage show, but she reined it in and took another slow breath to calm herself. “Starswirl did indeed tell me of his intentions. He explained about the jewel, and how it could be used to sustain oneself with an outside power source. It is true that he ignored my initial warning, I will say that. He was too invested and thinking too far ahead of his new experiments to really listen to me.

“I spoke to him again when I found out that he had continued on despite my warning.”

Applejack raised a hoof. “Princess?”

“Yes, Applejack?”

“Did ya think Starswirl was gonna turn out power hungry or become evil?”

Celestia shook her head. “Not at all. I trusted him very much to do the right thing.”

“So then what was the problem? Why not just let him become an alicorn?”

Celestia paused for a short while before answering. “It wasn’t him I was concerned about. Those with evil intentions can only flourish with power. Having a spell that could drastically increase one’s capabilities with little more than some magical talent, a scroll, and a jewel that was filled with auxiliary power was something too dangerous to be seen by the public.”

“You could have just told him to burn the thing when he was done,” said Rainbow.

Celestia shook her head. “No, it wouldn’t have worked. Starswirl would never willingly consent to destroying knowledge. Knowledge can be a very powerful thing, and he wouldn’t have wanted to get rid of something he put so much work into.

“I pleaded with him to stop his work, explaining my misgivings. It was a long conversation, and he was very reluctant, but he eventually agreed that the danger of misuse was too high, and he abandoned his quest for alicornhood.”

“Excuse me, Princess,” said Twilight. “That spell Starswirl was working on… was it the same one that I altered?”

Celestia nodded. “’From one to another, another to one. A mark of one’s destiny, singled out alone, fulfilled.’”

“That’s the spell?” asked Sunset.

Celestia nodded.

“But what does it mean?”

“From one to another refers to going from a unicorn to an alicorn, while another to one refers to the wings he would need from another race to become one.

“Starswirl’s ‘destiny,’ as it were, was being a unicorn. Thus, ascending to alicornhood would have changed that destiny to fulfill his desires. Having wings and a horn would mark him as an alicorn, and singled out alone, of course, refers to his attempt to rely on no one else to accomplish it.”

Sunset pondered that for a few moments. It seemed a little confusing at first, but made perfect sense when you thought about it.

“Though Starswirl eventually accepted my wisdom, Stardust did not. He believed Starswirl had every right to finish the spell. Again, I’m not entirely certain whether it was a desire for knowledge that went too far, or just plain and simple greed for power.”

Sunset let out a little huff. “This Stardust character… he reminds me a lot of me.” Her eyes faded out. “He told me so many lies, but for some reason… I can’t hate him. He seemed so sympathetic to my suffering and past, encouraging me when I was feeling doubtful about what I was being asked to do. He offered me advice and power and tried to keep me on the right track when my mind strayed towards less savory thoughts. It was all an act, but he played his part of the dutiful mentor to perfection. It was hard to believe he wasn’t really Starswirl. Although… he did ask me to call him Stardust Flare, his stated reason being he didn’t want Celestia’s false honor.”

“He did get into the heads of many a pony, but thankfully he was never able to cause serious damage. I believe in the beginning his rage was so potent that it scared other ponies away. It was only when he calmed himself down that he began to seek manipulation as a means of keeping others under his control.”

“So what happened next?” asked Rarity.

“Starswirl felt that he could still continue on with his more advanced experiments by using the jewel’s ability to hold magical energy. After all, the process he was planning to use to gain power was more or less just for simplicity’s sake. He didn’t care about alicornhood itself. It was just a means to an end not to need an outside source of power. It could take weeks to infuse enough power into jewels to use as a substitute for the power he didn’t possess on his own.

“Starswirl told me that he’d been having a hard time with Stardust in trying to get the stallion to just let things go, and I found that a little worrisome. I trusted Starswirl to keep an eye on him, but Stardust… well, as you yourself said, Sunset, he was skilled at manipulation. He pretended to be over things, while secretly advancing the spell all the while. He prepared the jewel, modified the spell repeatedly to something he felt would be workable, and feigned calmness the whole time.

“Starswirl did eventually find him out, just as he was preparing to try the spell out for real. I had been having trouble sleeping that night. I had a bad feeling I just couldn’t shake. I decided to pay a visit to Starswirl. He was usually a night owl.

“A few royal guards accompanied me, as they always do when I’m out. When I arrived at Starswirl’s house I heard a commotion within. Believing my worries to be correct I busted the door open, and after following the sound I saw a terrible sight.”

Celestia’s eyes grew dim.

Sunset took a crack at it. “Starswirl was dead, wasn’t he?” she asked somberly.

Twilight glanced quickly at Sunset then back to Celestia. “Is it true? Stardust killed Starswirl?”

Celestia slowly nodded. “That is correct. I’m not sure what spells Stardust had used, but it was clear just from looking at him that Starswirl had been murdered. It was one of the few times I’d ever lost my temper. He hadn’t yet ascended but he did possess great power from the Amulet. It wasn’t equal to mine, but I knew he could not be allowed to make use of that spell.

“When it seemed like he would lose he became desperate. He didn’t have time to chant the spell and activate its effect, so he used a different spell to seal his spirit inside the Amulet.”

“Wait! Hold on!” Sunset said suddenly. “He sealed HIMSELF inside it? He said that you were the one that did that.”

“It was just another lie. He deliberately took an attack as he cast the spell in order to deceive me into thinking I had finished him off. There are anti-teleportation spells, and of course I used one. Thus, he was unable to get out of there easily. When he realized there was no escape he took the only route open to him, and discarded his pony body, fusing it with the jewel. Stardust was lifeless, and his body was wounded, so I was certain I had finished him off.

“I don’t know if Stardust knew he wouldn’t be able to make use of the Amulet’s power on his own, but I suppose it wouldn’t have made a difference anyway. He didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.”

“So what happened after that?” asked Sunset. “Stardust said that after he was sealed a thief stole it.”

Celestia nodded. “As a testament to Starswirl I put the Alicorn Amulet on display, not knowing that Stardust was sealed in it. It was eventually stolen by someone, and from then on it popped up here and there, but I was never able to retrieve it and put it somewhere safe once I found out the truth. Now that it’s been destroyed for good I feel relieved. It can no longer corrupt other ponies again.”

They all digested what they had learned about their foe.

After a minute or two Celestia said, “I have a few questions for you, Sunset.” Looking down at Sunset she asked, “How did you get the Alicorn Amulet? And why did you put it on? And, finally, what did he say to you?”

Sunset looked down at the ground again. “I was scared of meeting you, so Twilight sent me to Zecora’s place to sleep. While helping her brew potions I made a mistake and wound up causing a lot of damage. As I was cleaning up I found it under her bed. It looked like it would fit in a jewelry box I found nearby. When I tried to lift it up I felt something strange, like I experienced all my deepest fears in one moment. I jerked and hit my head right after that, so the feeling didn’t last.

“I remembered reading about it a long time ago. I recalled the power increase and the magical lock, but the last important thing, the one about corrupting the user, wouldn’t come to me. I admit… a part of me felt bad about trying it on, but another part of me was excited to try it out. That’s when he began to talk to me.”

Sunset felt a burning shame in her stomach. With a sigh she continued, “He brought forth a lot of things I had thought in the past to get me to turn against Celestia. He told me he was Starswirl to try and earn my trust, though I had my doubts about that at first. I came around eventually because Stardust felt just like the closest friend you could have.”

“HOW?” Rainbow asked. “That smug, arrogant jerk certainly didn’t feel like a friend I’d want to have.”

“Stardust was a master manipulator,” said Celestia. “His ability to enter his host’s thoughts and memories allows him to be whatever his host wants him to be. In this case he was just fortunate that Sunset formerly had a grudge against me.”

Sunset rubbed her forehead. “Yeah. Everything he said to me came from my own thoughts and feelings, so it made me feel justified in my anger.”

“Hold on a second!” Shining said, annoyed. “So this Stardust jerk ignited your anger for Celestia. I get that. Why were you trying to kill Twilight?”

Sunset let out a quiet groan, rubbing her forehead harder. “Convenience. If I attacked Celestia then Twilight would intervene. And he told me that Twilight was simply Celestia’s brainwashed minion. He also sent me a vision in the middle of the night of Celestia assaulting Twilight and stripping her of her true self so she’d be obedient.”

She slapped her hoof to her face several times. “Stupid, stupid, stupid! It’s all so stupid sounding on this side of the fence! It all made so much sense when he was manipulating me, but now I can’t believe I ever fell for it.”

Turning to Twilight she asked, “Are you okay, Twilight?”

“In what regard?” she responded.

“In our final clash Stardust told me the truth about using me the whole time. Because of your dark magic he decided to abandon me as a host to try and grab you. And he succeeded.”

Twilight grimaced, looking away. “Well… I have to say the same as you. I can’t believe I ever put that thing on, but in the moment it felt like it made perfect sense.”

“Are… are you going to be okay?” she asked hesitantly.

“Well… I…” She opened her eyes, looking around at her friends. “I don’t know yet. I want to beat myself up over it, but I don’t want Rainbow to yell at me too. After all, she made a very good point: this day ended with no deaths and everything resolved. You can’t ask for better than that. I will use what happened here today as another lesson to drill into my head.”

Celestia beamed at Twilight. “Everyone has a little darkness in their hearts. What makes the difference is whether or not you can acknowledge it and deal with it.”

“Well, I know I’m not going to do it alone. I’m going to need all my friends to support me as they always have.”

Sunset got an odd look on her face as something occurred to her. “Princess Celestia?”

“Yes, Sunset?”

“While Cadance and Stardust were fighting I went to retrieve the Element I had stolen. After he attacked me… something odd happened…” Sunset drifted off, her brow furrowed in concentration.

“Odd, how?” asked Twilight.

“Well… that final attack he threw at me… it didn’t hurt at all.”

“One of the others musta shielded you then,” said Applejack. “That seems obvious.”

“But how can that be?” Sunset responded. “Rarity doesn’t know shield magic, Cadance was busy fighting Stardust, Twilight was exhausted, Shining was incapacitated by that earth wall, and Celestia was trying to help him down. There was no one to shield me.”

Cadance let out a thoughtful “Hmmm.” Turning her head she asked, “Shining, Celestia? Did either of you protect Sunset at the end?”

Shining shook his head. “I could barely breathe. I wouldn’t have been able to focus.”

“And I was too busy trying to help him,” added Celestia.

“This makes no sense,” said Twilight. “Someone had to have shielded Sunset, otherwise how did she survive to send me the Element?”

Sunset sniffed as the memory came to her. “I think… well… this might sound crazy, but…”

“Yes?” said Pinkie. “What happened?”

“I think the ones that saved me were… my friends.”

“Your friends?” asked Rainbow. “But all of us were in the shield.”

She shook her head. “No… not you guys. Or, at least, this world’s version of you guys. His attack itself didn’t hurt, but when I fell to the ground I landed right on my back hoof, and it hurt a lot. I was in too much pain to move, but then… the miracle happened: just when I was about to give up, my friends came to visit me. Rainbow Dash was first, scolding me for trying to do things alone. Applejack, Rarity, Fluttershy, and Pinkie all showed up too, offering me companionship and encouraging me to keep going on.”

She put a hoof to her heart. “It was them that truly saved the day. Without their feelings lifting me up I would have failed at getting the Element to you.”

Several of them looked at one another. Twilight was staring thoughtfully at Sunset. “So… you’re saying you saw all your human world friends?”

She nodded. “Exactly as I remembered them before I went through the portal.”

“So they were humans, then? Not ponies?”

Sunset sucked on her cheek. “Yes, that’s right. I suppose that’s kind of odd. When we went through the portal, we both became humans to fit the world we were transported to. It would stand to reason that if they went through the portal they would become ponies like all of us.”

“And… what happened to them?” She took a quick look around. “If they were that concerned for you then they should have stayed by your side.”

“Even when I got the Element I didn’t have the strength to teleport anything. They told me to put it on and ask for some power. I was hesitant, naturally, after what happened the last time I put it on. They all sat on the grass, and we each held each other much like we did before we healed Spike. The Element didn’t respond to me at first because I was still thinking too much of myself. I wanted to be the one to help you, but once again my friends scolded me, reminding me that we are not individuals. Our strength is only at its greatest when we combine our hearts and fight as one.

“When I thought of it like that the Element of Magic graced me with a small bit of power, and I knew only you, Twilight, could wield it to its true potential. So I delivered it to you. Right after that, though, my friends had vanished, and I fell unconscious.”

Celestia adjusted her wings a bit. “I believe I understand what happened.”

“Yes?’ Sunset replied, interested to hear her take on it.

“The Elements are not like the Alicorn Amulet. The Amulet had a consciousness inside, with a personality and goals and such. However, the Elements do not have any such thing.” She scratched her chin thoughtfully. “How do I explain this? Although the Elements do not have a consciousness they do have an intelligence. They do not think, but they judge their wielders. So in a sense they have the capabilities of a consciousness, but do not actually possess one.”

“I… kinda get it,” said Twilight. “If they didn’t have some ability to judge then anyone could wind up using them.”

“Correct. When Sunset was separated from the Amulet she realized the wrong she was responsible for, and quickly decided the best course of action to rid us of Stardust for good. However, that alone did not make Sunset a worthy candidate.

“It was when Sunset made the choice to sacrifice her own life to protect the Element, her heart spurring her to guard our most powerful weapon even if she died in the process, that the Element saw fit to share a little of its power with her.”

“So you’re saying… that it was the Element itself that protected me?” asked Sunset.

“In the human world,” said Twilight, “the Element of Magic Sunset was wearing protected me from her when my human world friends threw themselves around me to save me from her attack.”

“It is a great symbol of courage to give up one’s life for the sake of allowing others to survive,” said Celestia.

Twilight gave Spike a squeeze. “I totally agree with that.”

Spike just grinned at the attention.

“I believe the Element recognized that in you, Sunset. And similarly it did one other thing for you.”

“One other thing?” she asked. “What did it do?”

“As we just saw when we healed Spike, the Elements of Harmony are a power that is used to boost harmony, hence the name. It could sense the danger Stardust posed, but it could not give off its true power by itself. It needed its companions.”

“So what did it do?” Sunset asked again.

“Can’t you tell?” Celestia extended a hoof, putting it on Sunset’s chest. Sunset looked down at it. “The Elements are reflections of the heart. When you put on the Element in the human world your heart was exposed for all to see, and you turned into a rampaging monster.”

Sunset grimaced, then grinned weakly. “Yeah, I can’t deny that.”

“The Element simply gave you what you needed, both to embrace your potential and for the good of Equestria. Your five friends from the human world… they were real only in your own mind.”

Sunset looked up at her. “So you’re saying they weren’t really here in Equestria?”

“As was pointed out they remained humans even though they should have been transformed by the portal. They showed up mysteriously right when you needed them, then just as mysteriously vanished as soon as you sent the Element away to Twilight.

"So, yes, I’d say the real things weren’t here, but they didn’t need to be. The real Sunset emerged because they encouraged you to keep going when you wanted to quit. They reminded you of what their friendship meant to you. And when your heart filled with the light of friendship the Element could finally open itself up to you and grant you a little bit of its power.”

Sunset thought of her friends again. Weakened as she was at the time it had seemed a miracle to her that her friends had showed up just when she needed them. That they were only manifestations of what lay in her heart was a little disappointing, but she still felt grateful to be able to see them again.

Her heart rate went up a bit. Now that they had discussed all they needed to about the origins of how things began there remained one last thing she had to ask. “Princess Celestia?”

“Yes, Sunset?” she replied.

She let out a heavy breath, averting her eyes at first but then holding her head up and looking Celestia in the eye. “So what happens to me now?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m… I’m ready to accept the consequences of my actions.” With a slight hesitance she added in, “I’ll accept whatever punishment you have in mind for everything that I did, both today, the last time the portal opened, as well as when I abandoned you.”

Celestia’s expression became unreadable.

“Come on, Sunset!” said Twilight. “Haven’t you experienced enough punishment? This is probably going to drag on your mind for a while.”

She ignored Twilight. “Please, Princess! I don’t want to just sweep this under the rug and pretend today never happened.”

Celestia and Sunset stared into each other’s eyes for a while, neither moving except for an occasional blink.

Twilight looked between the two, unsure of what to say. It was true that Sunset caused a lot of problems, but it wasn’t intentional on her part. She didn’t know what would happen when she put on the Amulet. And everything had turned out alright in the end. A part of her knew that it didn’t negate Sunset’s actions just because she hadn’t succeeded at her goal, but she wasn’t in her right mind when she did those actions. As soon as she was freed from Stardust’s influence she had done the right thing and saved them all. Didn’t that count for something?

Everyone else seemed to be waiting for Celestia’s say in the matter.

Celestia could see that Sunset wasn’t going to budge. Her former student’s face was set. “Very well,” she finally replied. “If you had returned apologetic I had hoped to be your teacher again, along with Twilight, but it’s clear that something else needs to be done.”

Sunset had a mix of fear and determination going through her. She didn’t know what Celestia would do to her, but she would face it.

Drawing herself up to her full height she said, “As ruler of Equestria I hereby proclaim that Sunset’s action require punishment. Thus, I am sentencing her to banishment, starting tomorrow. I shall decide the location and the duration by then.”

Sunset gave a timid nod. “Yes, Princess.”

Twilight felt a tear coming down her cheek. “Princess…” She let out a little growl. “This isn’t right!”

“Silence yourself, Twilight,” Celestia said in a scolding tone. “This is what Sunset herself asked for. I am actually proud that she’s ready to take responsibility for this.”

None of them looked too happy about Celestia’s proclamation.

“Please, Twilight,” Sunset said weakly. “Just drop it. I’m begging you. Don’t get mad at her for doing the right thing. This is hard enough as it is.”

Twilight started to talk several times, but eventually gave it up. She buried her head in a hoof, not agreeing at all with what was going on. Sunset had saved them all.

Ultimately, it wasn’t her decision. Lifting her head she asked with a sarcastic tone, “So what about me? I put on the Alicorn Amulet too. Am I getting banished as well?”

The tense atmosphere in the room tightened considerably. They had forgotten about that little detail.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Twilight!” said Sunset angrily. “You’re a needed element in Ponyville. Without you who is going to help power the Elements of Harmony?”

Everyone else looked nervously at Sunset before turning back to Celestia.

Celestia didn’t answer for a while. Finally she said, “You did put on the Amulet, yes, but ultimately didn’t do anything with it. You were easily persuaded to abandon your crusade once you saw it would put your friends in danger.

“As for Sunset, it was simply good fortune that Spike survived this ordeal and you managed to retrieve the Element from her the last time she showed up. Her actions nearly doomed Equestria twice.

“Now, that is enough talking. I will leave Sunset in your care until tomorrow. I’ll expect you to keep an eye on her so she doesn’t run from this, but I really don’t expect her to try to leave now. That is all.”

With another flash all of them except for Celestia were now in the library.

Chapter 21: Conequences

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None of them were sure what to say. Their victory was feeling hollow now.

“Why, Sunset?” Twilight said mournfully. “Why did you have to do it?”

Sunset looked Twilight in the eyes. “I… I needed this. I spent so long running away from myself and my responsibilities. I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to walk the path of rightness, and that starts with acknowledging my faults and taking responsibility for my actions.”

“But… banishment? You could have stayed with us… began anew! I don’t even know what’s going to happen to you tomorrow. DIDN’T YOU SAY YOUR GREATEST FEAR WAS BEING AWAY FROM YOUR FRIENDS?” Tears started coming down her eyes.

Sunset hugged Twilight. “It’s something I just have to face. I’m scared too, but… in a way, I’ve never felt better in my life. I helped to protect you at the end.”

Twilight hugged her back. “And now I want to protect you! I’m going to talk to Celestia and get her to change her mind!”

Shining put a hoof on her. “You shouldn’t do that.”

“WHY NOT?” she yelled, pulling away from Sunset and turning to her brother. “She saved our butts, and we’re going to repay her by just standing around and doing nothing? By watching her get banished?”

“You know that’s not the point, Twilight,” said Cadance gently. “Sunset may not have known what was going to happen, but her ignorance doesn’t negate everything that happened. As Celestia said it was simply good fortune that Sunset’s actions didn’t have any lasting consequences.”

Twilight growled. “I DON’T ACCEPT THAT!” she yelled, stomping a hoof. “I also put on the Alicorn Amulet, knowing full well what happens to those that wear it. I was manipulated and used by Stardust too, and, just like with Sunset, it was only good luck that I didn’t do anything terrible under his control. If Sunset is getting banished then I’ll be banished right along with her.” She let out a loud snort, crossing her hooves.

Once more they were feeling tense. The reason they had for punishing Sunset was the same as for Twilight, so how could they punish Sunset’s actions, but dismiss Twilight’s? None of them wanted to lose Twilight, though. She was too big a part of all their lives.

The heavy atmosphere was broken by a hearty laugh. All of them turned to Sunset, who was oddly the calmest of all of them. “Oh, Twilight,” she said warmly, putting a hoof to her chest. “You warm my heart. You’re fighting so hard for my sake. But there’s no need to despair. As I said before… this is what I want. It’s the path I’ve chosen.

“Even if I didn’t know the end result of my choice it was still not my place to take something that wasn’t mine. Because of all of you I finally have the courage to face myself honestly, to look at my faults and see someone that can improve. Even Stardust, evil as he was, helped me in seeing the darkness still residing inside my own heart.

“I got to spend time with all of you, and helped to save the day. I got to reunite with Celestia and put our differences aside to become friends again. I’m still alive, and I’m so grateful for that. I’m… happy.”

“Sunset…” Twilight’s anger was fading.

Sunset walked the short distance to Twilight, sitting down and putting her hooves on Twilight’s shoulders. “Equestria still needs you, Twilight. Far more than they need someone like me. You’re an Equestrian protector, the true wielder of the Element of Magic. Don’t let my fate weigh on your mind. I don’t want any more excuses to turn away from what I’ve done. I want to face what I’ve done head on.”

Twilight looked into Sunset’s eyes. They had been so heavy when Sunset had first arrived. She had been so terrified of everything. Now she appeared calm, ready to face anything life threw at her. “I… I guess I should just… accept it, then?”

Sunset nodded. “I would appreciate that. Let’s not make things any harder than they already are. I’m gonna be locked up for a while somewhere, but just knowing that all of you will be waiting for me afterwards will get me through this. But first…”

Letting go of Twilight she turned to Pinkie Pie. “Pinkie, before I go I sure could use the biggest farewell party you’ve ever thrown.”

Tears dripped down Pinkie’s eyes as she nodded. “Leave it to me. Tomorrow you’ll have a huge sendoff.”

“And what about today?” asked Rarity.

“I really just want to spend some time with all of you. I don’t know when I’m going to see all of you again, so I want to make the most of my freedom while I can.” She grimaced a little as she put pressure on her bad leg. “I wish I wasn’t so wiped out. I sure would have liked to start work on fixing up the park.”

“Same here,” Twilight replied. “I doubt I could lift up an ant right now.”

“Hold on a sec,” said Applejack.

“Yes?”

Turning to Shining Armor and Cadance she said, “I’m all for a nice party tomorrow, but what exactly did Celestia say happened to Sunset?”

“Ponyville hasn’t forgotten Trixie,” said Cadance. “She also got her hooves on the Amulet and was messing things up for everyone. Celestia made it clear that that was not what you were really like.”

“And everyone already knows Twilight,” said Shining. “They know she’s not some horrible monster.”

“So the blame for all the incidents went onto Stardust, as it should.”

“That’s good,” said Applejack. “I didn’t know how ponies would react if they knew the guest of honor at our farewell party was the one that started all this destruction.”

“You know what I think we all need?” said Twilight.

“No, what?” asked Rainbow.

Twilight smiled groggily. “You should know. It’s one of your favorite hobbies.”

“What, napping?” she said, jokingly sarcastic.

Twilight nodded. “Exactly.” She stretched a bit. “I’m completely wiped. I need to recharge.”

“Same here,” said Sunset.

“Sounds good to me,” said Spike.

The rest of them agreed, but Shining didn’t. He gave Twilight a hug, saying, “I would love to stay and look over you, but we have to return to the Crystal Empire now. Our people are waiting to hear about the source of that dark magic and if we defeated it.”

Cadance hugged her too. “Stay safe, Twilight.”

Twilight hugged them back. “Alright, you two. Thanks for showing up. We couldn’t have prevailed without you.”

With a few last goodbyes Shining and Cadance left.

Rarity helped bring Twilight’s mattress back up to the loft as Sunset explained why it was on the bottom floor.

After they all got comfortable the seven ponies all laid down. Twilight and Sunset were out almost immediately, having worked the hardest. Spike was right behind them. The rest followed a short while later.

By the time they woke up it was late afternoon. They felt refreshed.

Sunset once more brought up helping to clean the park, which they all accepted. Even though she was rested and had regained some energy she was still having trouble walking and her injuries were causing her pain.

“This won’t do, Sunset,” said Twilight. “You’re too hurt to help.”

“Nonsense!” she replied, a grimace right after refuting that.

“Look, if you want to help out then we need to take care of your injuries first.”

“Celestia already did that, remember?”

Twilight’s horn glowed red, lifting up the Elements of Harmony and giving them to their respective owners. “This will work better. It helped Spike out, so I know it can do the same for you.”

Sunset shook her head. “You don’t need to go that far.”

“YES… I do!” Twilight said firmly. “You’re already in bad shape, and I don’t want you exhausting yourself further. And given that tomorrow you’re being banished somewhere I’d feel much more comfortable knowing you’re in good condition beforehand.

“I’m NOT budging on this! Either you accept the healing or you’re staying here to rest. So which is it?”

Sunset couldn’t fight Twilight. She knew her friend was right. She sighed, lowering her head. “Very well, Princess. You win.”

Twilight gave an authoritative nod. “Good!”

The six of them, as well as Spike, gathered in a circle around her. The process went just like with Spike. Sunset was wrapped in a rainbow-colored light that slowly faded.

When it dissipated Sunset tested her back leg. It didn’t hurt anymore. All her aches and pains had vanished. She felt fit as a fiddle. She bowed her head humbly and said to all of them, “Thank you.”

They replied with, “You’re welcome.”

“So now that I’m all healed up can we go? We don’t have a lot of time. Well, actually, it’s more like I don’t have a lot of time before the sun sets.”

Twilight nodded.

For the next few hours the eight of them worked together with other ponies from Ponyville to get the park looking back to normal. Holes were filled in, blackened grass and plants were gathered or dug up to get to the fresh soil, the fountain was fixed, the pond was filled with water again, benches and the like were crafted, and Applejack donated a few trees from Sweet Apple Acres to replace the ones that had been destroyed.

By the end of it Sunset was sweaty and feeling as tired as before, but she didn’t regret it. She welcomed the feeling of hard work.

Twilight returned to the library, getting a blanket for them to sit on and stare at the stars in the sky.

When that was over it was about time to turn in for the night. At Sunset’s request the other five agreed to a sleepover at Twilights house.

The other six fell asleep rather quickly, tired from all the work. Sunset took a little longer, even though she was equally as tired. There was so much on her mind, but eventually her thoughts quieted down, and she fell asleep.

Chapter 22: Farewell, Sunset

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Sunset screamed, running for her life. She was in a forest, weaving in and out of trees in the path. Something was pursuing her. Something that wanted to hurt her.

Turning her head she fired blasts into the forest, and she felt some connect. She slowed her rapid pace, trying to see what the mysterious creature was. A cloud shifted overhead, and moonlight shone down upon the forest.

Sunset shuddered, unable to breathe. Twilight was down. Spike was down. All the rest of her friends were down. Shining, Cadance, and Celestia were down. Each of them were quivering on the ground, burns across their bodies.

A dark mist began to emerge from their bodies, converging into one solid mass. “Look what you’ve done, Sunset,” said the familiar mocking voice of Stardust. “Once again you’ve betrayed everyone. It’s just never going to end with you, is it?” He approached her on shadowy legs, gliding rather than walking. “The darkness in your heart will never be extinguished.”

Sunset was gasping for breath, tears coming down her eyes. “No! You’re… you’re dead! This isn’t real!” She fired at him, but it just went right through.

Stardust ignored it. “Oh, isn’t it? Did you really think you could get rid of me so easily? Even if the jewel was destroyed it doesn’t matter. I left a little piece of myself in you.”

“W-W-WHAT?” she sputtered out, backing up a step.

“Hello, Sunset!”

His voice came from right next to her, and she turned her head and screamed. Another Stardust was emerging from her neck.

“It’s very comfy in here. So much evil and hatred and malice. This is a lovely home. It’s an honor to call you my master!”

“NO! STOP IT!” She went to push him away, but her leg went right through him. She pulled it back out, but the darkness was now on her leg too, slowly crawling up.

“There is no escape from me, Sunset, because I live in-side-you.” He whispered the next bit into her ear. “One day, I will take over you again. And this time, I will make sure that THIS comes to pass.”

The Stardust by the others exploded, engulfing all of them until there was nothing left but ash.

Sunset’s mouth was hanging open, horror going through her.

“Let’s see what lies inside your heart, hmm?”

A leg appeared alongside the head and neck, and he reached inside her, pulling something out. It was in the shape of a heart, beating hard, but it was black. He gave it a squeeze, and a seemingly endlessly amount of darkness spewed out of it, creating a wave that surrounded her. She was trapped as it spread throughout the forest and kept rising, as though it was water.

She tried to swim through it, but it was too dense. The ground seemed to open up beneath her, sucking her down into it. She struggled to breathe, staring up into the sole spot of light left, that of the full moon. It slowly began to fade as the darkness grew heavier and heavier.

Accusations and hurt began to echo around her. “You remember all this, don’t you?” said Stardust. “All this pain and despair and-”

“ENOUGH!” A loud voice reverberated through her ears, and a beam headed toward her, easily cutting through the darkness crushing her. It hit her right between the eyes, but it didn’t hurt at all. Light emanated from her, expanding outward until she was left on the forest floor.

She held herself, trembling on the ground. A figure landed on the earth, one she didn’t recognize. “W-who are you?”

“Greetings, Sunset Shimmer,” said a kindly voice. “I am Princess Luna, Princess of the Night.”

“You’re… Princess Luna?” she asked. Of course she knew that Luna had been freed from her research, but she didn’t know what the mare actually looked like.

Luna was the polar opposite of her sister in appearance. Princess of the Night certainly suited her for that alone.

She slowly sat up, looking around the forest like Stardust might return.

“My sister told me to keep a watch out for your dreams, Sunset Shimmer.”

Sunset turned to Luna. “She… she did?”

“She informed me of what had been going on today, so it was only natural that you were going to have a nightmare or two. You’re not the only one, though.” Luna gestured with her hoof.

To her surprise a distraught Twilight came into view. “Twilight? What are you doing here?”

“She was also suffering under a terrible weight that necessitated my aid,” said Luna.

“But why? What was going on with her?”

Twilight hung her head. “I’d guess the same sort of thing you’ve been dreaming of.”

Luna spoke up again. “Being taken over again, hurting her friends by her own hoof, and having to watch them fall by someone else. It ended up with many dead.”

Twilight closed her eyes tight. “It was horrible! All there were was bodies, as far as the eye could see. He had control of my body, but I could only watch as he used my power to destroy everything.”

“This was the first time that Twilight has experienced true loss. Even though in the end neither Spike nor you had actually died she still believed that they had until finding out the truth of their survival.

“For Twilight… this was a matter of two great fears: For Spike it was about losing a friend through a preventable mistake, and for Sunset it was being too powerless to protect those she cared for.”

“Oh, Twilight.” Sunset walked over, giving her friend a hug. “Mine wasn’t much better. Stardust told me that he left a piece of himself behind in me, waiting for the moment he could use me again. I was literally swimming in an ocean of darkness.”

Twilight hugged her back. “I guess we both need more time to process things. All I could hear was Stardust’s mocking voice. You wouldn’t know this, since it would have been right after he attacked you, but he mocked how I failed at protecting either of you. He said I’d never recover from the shame, so it wouldn’t matter whether he stole my body or not. Even if it wasn’t him he expected me to be ruined to the point I couldn’t defend my friends or family or Celestia from the next big threat to Equestria. I… I’m scared he might be right.”

“You mustn’t let your fears overpower you, Twilight Sparkle,” Luna said meaningfully, “lest you wind up like me. Or Sombra. Acknowledge those feelings, and share them with those close to your heart.” Her horn glowed, and lights came from Sunset and Twilight’s chest.

The lights split into ten separate pieces, before landing and changing into the human and pony versions of their five friends, who proceeded to hug the both of them.

Twilight closed her eyes, reveling in the feelings. Though they were just manifestations that Luna created it was always empowering to have her friends nearby to rely on.

Sunset was also reminded of how they had shown up through the power of the Element of Magic. It was the friendship in her heart, and not her own self, that had allowed her to prevail in the end.

The ten phantom friends let go, standing off to the side but still looking joyful. “Princess Luna?” Sunset started.

“Yes, child?”

She hesitated, not wanting her question to come off the wrong way. “Well… what… do you think of your sister now?”

Luna’s eyebrow went up. “In what way?”

“Has anything changed in the way you feel toward her, or are you just running from those emotions like I was because you’re afraid of succumbing to darkness again?”

“Ah,” Luna replied, understanding. “The basis of your questions comes from your own misgivings. This event has made many of your flaws obvious to you, so it’s only natural you’d ask advice from someone who was once in the same position as you.”

Sunset just nodded.

“Things have changed between the two of us since then. My failing back then was the assumption of mindreading. I didn’t voice my hurt and pain to my sister, believing she should realize it if we were really that close. She knew something was off, but when she’d attempt to approach me I’d shut off and dismiss her. Even though she tried to help me I didn’t give her a genuine opportunity to.

“And, of course, it eventually built up to the point that I lost myself to the darkness. I willingly surrendered to it, in order to gain the power I’d need to overthrow her. I failed, obviously, as she used the Elements of Harmony against me.

“When Twilight Sparkle and her friends pulled me from the darkness it was like seeing things anew. For all my anger and pain I saw I was more at fault than her for not simply being honest. Celestia was not my enemy. She was my dear sister.”

She smiled warmly. “These days our relationship is strong. We do not want to be separated from each other again, so we regularly interact with one another and share our hearts, keeping our bond as strong as can be. We do still have the occasional disagreement, but we can work past it together.

“So to answer your question, Sunset, I do not work with my sister now out of fear, but love. I love her, and she loves me. It took me a hefty punishment to get it, but I don’t need the admiration of hundreds when I have the purest, truest love possible from my dear sister. So should it be for you, as well as you too, Twilight Sparkle. Let the pure love of your friends trump your fears, and you will excel as you always have.”

The ten phantoms all began to talk, offering them encouragement.

Sunset and Twilight looked at their five friends, then at each other. They both seemed calmer now. Sunset extended a hoof toward Twilight, who took it.

“It doesn’t feel so scary now,” said Sunset. “Not when we’re all working together.”

“I agree,” said Twilight, putting her other front hoof to her chest. “I can feel them inside me, giving strength to my heart. I will overcome this, and come out stronger. For all of us.”

Luna beamed. “Very good. I will leave these ten with you. I trust they will protect you from any more nightmares.

“Now I must go. There are others who need my protection.”

Soaring up into the air she vanished.

“Have I mentioned how glad I am that Luna is free?” Sunset said, flopping onto the ground.

“Tell me about it,” Twilight responded, doing the same.

Laying down on the grass the two of them gazed upon the moon and stars overhead. “Hey, Twilight?”

“Yeah?”

“I just want to say thank you. Back then, after you used the Elements on me and purged the darkness from my heart, you could have done anything. You could have requested a harsh punishment, but instead you directed me to your friends so I could learn from them what friendship really meant. If you hadn’t done that then I probably would have reverted back to my old ways.”

Twilight smiled warmly. “I also have to thank you too. If you hadn’t fought so hard to get the Element of Magic back to me then I would be dead right now. Celestia said that if he took a body after he was freed from the Amulet that he would share the fate of his vessel. In other words, had he gotten my body I asked Celestia to finish me off to get rid of Stardust as well. It seemed like the only choice once Cadance began to falter.

“Because of you I still get to experience life with my friends.”

“Well, it only felt right after all. I did cause this whole mess. And it wasn’t me that saved you, you know. The Element of Magic would never have granted me some of its power if I didn’t have friendship in my heart.”

“That’s partially true, but the victory still goes to you. Those reflections from your heart only appeared AFTER you tried to sacrifice yourself to protect the Element.”

“I guess you’re right.”

Things were so quiet and peaceful after Luna rid them of their nightmares that the two were completely relaxed. There would still be some work to do in healing their souls, but for the moment they were content.

When the two woke up in the morning they shared a look, remembering the previous night.

Time seemed to be running at ten times speed for Sunset. She wanted to prolong things and forget about what was coming later, but was successful at neither. One second she was having breakfast, then the next she was partying and dancing, and then after that the sun was going down. She had no idea where the time went, but she hadn’t been able to fully keep her mind on the fun because of the underlying fear of what awaited her at the end of things.

She knew her time was up when Spike suddenly belched up a letter, requesting their presence at Celestia’s castle.

Her heart was beating quickly, but she wasn’t really afraid of the banishment itself. She knew Celestia was not a cruel pony, so wherever she was being sent was somewhere she could handle. Her discomfort now was the same as the first night she had arrived. Luna had told the two of them to endure through the help of their friends. Twilight could do that easily, being a free pony, but she could not. She was going to be sent somewhere away from them.

She had asked for this. She had asked for punishment befitting her crime. She hadn’t forgotten that, but now she was regretting it. How was she supposed to survive without her friends? How could she trust herself not to regress without their love and faith and encouragement to build her up when she was feeling low?

She felt like saying nothing. After all, they couldn’t override Celestia. They didn’t have the authority. However, as she had to keep reminding herself, it was thoughts like that that had sparked all this in the first place.

Twilight was preparing to teleport all of them to the castle.

“Everyone?” Sunset said meekly. They turned to look at her. Taking in a deep breath she said, “I’m sure gonna miss all of you.” She couldn’t stop a tear coming down her eye. Her eyes clenched shut as she hugged herself. “You’ll come to visit sometimes, won’t you? Promise me you will.”

Twilight grimaced. She could understand Sunset’s pain. It reminded her of right after they had stopped Nightmare Moon. She had had a taste of friendship and how wonderful it could feel, but then was going to have it torn away from her when she left Ponyville.

Their friends were similarly hurting, surrounding her with hugs. “Of course we will!”

“Every chance we get!”

“You’re not gonna be alone for long.”

It wasn’t much, but their assurances that she’d at least get to see them occasionally would have to do.

Twilight seemed to be stalling now, but Sunset wanted to just get things over with. Eventually Twilight acquiesced, and teleported them outside Celestia’s throne room.

Sunset took another heavy breath, then knocked on the door. It was enveloped in a yellow aura, opening up.

The eight of them walked down the carpeted hall, seeing Celestia sitting on her throne. Besides a few Royal Guards there was also something covered with a sheet against the wall.

Celestia sent the guards away. Once they had left she closed the door to the throne room. “Greetings, Sunset Shimmer.” Her voice was regal and composed, an air of power about her. Her head was raised up high as she looked down upon them all. “Have you prepared yourself?”

Sunset bowed. “Yes, Princess Celestia.”

Standing up she walked down the steps until she was at their level, her horn glowing and pulling the object towards her. “This will very likely interest you, Twilight Sparkle, as I’ve never shared this information with you. You will soon see something you’ve never seen before. Take a look.”

Twilight was intrigued, but more about Celestia using her full name. Celestia was rarely so formal since she had become an alicorn.

The sheet came down, revealing what looked like a mirror.

Sunset’s head tilted slightly. “Isn’t that just the portal to the human world?”

Celestia shook her head. “Oh, no. There is more than one portal. The human world is simply one of an infinite amount of alternate universes out there.”

Twilight’s eyes sparkled. That WAS intriguing to her. “So where does this one go?”

Celestia turned her back on all of them, walking a few steps away. “I find it odd, Twilight Sparkle, that you’ve never once asked about my parents. After all, if I am the princess there must be a queen out there, hmm?”

Twilight blinked. It seemed so obvious, but she really had never considered that. Once more she was put off by Celestia using her full name. Maybe it was simply because Celestia wanted to show she was being serious, as they had come here to hear the details of Sunset’s banishment.

Celestia put a hoof on the top of the mirror. “We did not always know about the Elements of Harmony, and one day we fought a powerful foe. Me, Luna, and our parents the King and Queen, all fought together valiantly but ultimately were overcome. For the sake of their children and Equestria they sacrificed their very souls to lock the fiend away in another dimension.”

“Oh, Princess… I don’t know what to say.” Although she had spent the majority of her childhood with Celestia there were many things about her teacher she didn’t know.

“Even now their immortal life force holds the creature back. There is only one way to break the seal.”

“Hold on!” Rainbow said. “What do you mean ‘break it?’ Why would you want to do such a thing?”

“And what does this have to do with Sunset anyway?” asked Twilight, confused.

Celestia let out a little chuckle. “Oh, it has everything to do with Sunset… my dear… faithful… student.” Those last words had a trace of sarcasm to them.

Twilight unconsciously backed her head up. Celestia was acting real strange.

“A nice sacrifice will SURELY break the seal, don’t you think?” Celestia’s head slowly turned around, her eyes glowing green and a black mist coming from her horn as she smirked. With a cruel laugh she said, “The opening of this portal will spell doom for everyone!” In a deeper voice she continued, “Did you really think you had gotten rid of me so easily, my little ponies?”

“S-S-S-S-Stardust?” Sunset exclaimed in disbelief, backing up rapidly and falling on her flank, still backing up. It reminded her too much of her nightmare.

The rest of them were following suit in retreating and screaming in horror.

Twilight was panting, unsure of what to do. They didn’t have the Elements with them.

The effects around Celestia vanished as quickly as they appeared. “Or maybe it’s just the portal to the human world,” she said casually. She put a hoof to her chin, chuckling gently into it.

It took a few seconds for it to sink in. Twilight was the first to respond. “PRINCESS, THAT WAS NOT FUNNY!” she yelled.

Fluttershy collapsed to the ground in a heap. “Oh, my heart. I think you just shaved a few years off my life.”

Rainbow was putting on a brave face, crossing her hooves as she hovered. “M-maybe YOUR life, but I knew it was a j-joke from the very beginning.” A bead of sweat gave her away, though.

Sunset put a hoof to her rapidly beating heart, panting. “Way… way too soon!”

Rarity looked disapprovingly at Celestia, clutching Spike close to her. “After we almost lost Spikey-Wikey you pull a joke like that?”

Celestia was unperturbed by their reactions. “Well, all of you were looking like I was sending Sunset into the sun or something. It certainly livened up the atmosphere in here, hmm?”

That got her a whole host of dirty looks.

Applejack raised a hoof, saying angrily, “All in favor of going with Sunset’s plan and overthrowin’ Celestia?”

Celestia snickered again as they all agreed almost in unison. She looked out the window for a few seconds into the night sky. “Hmm, yes. It’s nearly that time, isn’t it?”

“Time for WHAT?” Pinkie said, scowling. “Another terribly unfunny prank?”

“Well… I guess that maybe things are still too raw.” In a rare action for her Celestia bowed to the eight of them. “I offer my humblest and sincerest of apologies to you.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “I swear, Princess Celestia, your sense of humor can be really messed up sometimes, like inviting Discord to the Grand Galloping Gala.”

“You ever think of just getting a hobby or two to alleviate your boredom?” Rainbow said flatly.

“Honestly!” said Rarity.

Spike just held tight to Rarity, coming down from the emotional high.

Reluctantly they began to accept her apology. It wasn’t until the last of them did so that she finally rose up from her bow. “Well, now that I got that little bit of fun out of the way it’s time to get down to business. From what I can see there’s only a few minutes left so this really does have to be quick.”

“A few minutes until what?” asked Twilight.

“The deadline, of course. After thinking it over I have decided on the best place and duration of Sunset’s banishment.

“Sunset Shimmer!” she said authoritatively, “I hereby banish you from Equestria for the next thirty moons. You will leave through the portal, and you are not allowed to come back until that time is up. At that time I’ll judge if you’ve learned anything important from your friends, and whether to extend the sentence.”

Looking around at all of them she said, “I’ll trust you’re all in agreement that this is a fair and just punishment?”

It certainly wasn’t what any of them were expecting. They were expecting her to be banished somewhere in Equestria, and certainly somewhere where things would be harder for her.

After a few moments Pinkie said, “So her banishment is… to just go back to what she was doing?”

Celestia nodded. “Sunset Shimmer bears responsibility for her failings in taking something that wasn’t hers and multiple counts of attempted murder, property damage, stealing a priceless artifact, twice, and attempting to conquer the world. However, as soon as she was freed of that influence she gave everything she had to make amends for it. She fought on despite all her injuries, and even the Element of Magic itself recognized the strength of her heart, protecting her life when she tried to sacrifice herself. It was also through her efforts that we ultimately prevailed and put Stardust away for good. I’d say these actions weigh each other out pretty well.

“As I’ve said before the Elements reflect what is in one’s heart, and thus cannot be deceived. Had Sunset been planning another takeover, or been irredeemably evil, her sentence would be much more severe to fit that crime. But seeing as the Element saw fit to recognize her and grant her a little of its aid I must accept Sunset’s intentions as genuine.

“That being the case, her punishment calls for a second chance to do things right. I will grant her another opportunity to prove herself, and I know for a fact that if she does not have good friends close-by that she won’t be able to make the most of this.”

Sunset was lost for words. Her friends! She wasn’t going to lose them, after all. Tears slowly leaked down her face. She bowed in genuine reverence, unable to properly express exactly how grateful she felt. “T-t-thank y-you!” she stammered out, overwhelmed, barely keeping from sobbing in joy.

“Time is short, everyone, so please say your farewells now.”

The seven of them gathered around Sunset, hugging her tightly. She eagerly hugged them back. All her fears had come to nothing. The worst hadn’t happened, either killing someone or being separated from her friends. She had one more glorious opportunity to learn and grow.

When they all released one another Sunset was beaming widely, her eyes still shining with tears. “Oh, thank you, Princess Celestia. I’ll study harder than ever before!”

“Hmm…” Though doubtless a coincidence Twilight had said those exact same words when told she could stay in Ponyville after the defeat of Nightmare Moon. That only gave her hope that Sunset was on her way to becoming the mare she was always meant to be.

“Bye, everyone!” Sunset said brightly, running towards the portal and jumping through it with a giddy laugh. She couldn’t wait to see her friends again.

“And there she goes,” said Pinkie, a content smile on her face. “I’m gonna miss her.”

Twilight looked at Celestia questioningly. “Princess?”

She turned away from the portal. “Yes, Twilight?”

“You were planning to send Sunset back through the portal the whole time, weren’t you?”

Celestia chuckled, a mischievous smile on her face. “Can’t get anything past you, can I, Twilight?”

Rarity frowned. “All of you chewed me out yesterday for drawing out your suffering by not telling you Spike was alive. So I’m sure you also have a good reason for not telling Sunset the truth?”

“Of course,” she replied, becoming a little more serious. “Sunset would not have accepted my judgment had I told her at the start. Even though she was being controlled she was still responsible for a lot of nasty actions. Because of that she sought to be punished in some way. As she said she didn’t want things to just be forgotten simply because she had been unsuccessful in her scheme. Had I told her then I wanted her to return to the human world she wouldn’t have seen it as a consequence, but as a reward for bad behavior.”

She walked towards some of the stained glass windows. “Perhaps it is a bit indulgent not to lock her up, but I finally got to see Sunset accomplish what I wanted her to all along. She made some friends and kept them in her heart. She fought to her utmost for something bigger than herself or her own goals. I’m quite proud of what she has become.” She put a hoof on the window of the six of them defeating Nightmare Moon. “And hopefully she will now follow in your hoofsteps properly. Now that her fears and doubts have been laid bare and dealt with I believe she will grow immeasurably by the time I see her again.”

“Princess…” Fluttershy hesitated. “Well… if you wanted her to excel why didn’t you teach her again? Or leave her to our care? You two finally made up. Aren’t you going to miss her?”

“That’s simple. There is nothing of worth left for me to teach Sunset. Academically, she was on Twilight’s level. The same with learning spells. The last thing left for Sunset to accomplish as a pony is strengthening her heart, and that is best left to her close friends.”

Turning around and walking back towards them she continued, “Of course I’m going to miss her. Although my first vision of my student I haven’t seen in over ten years was her trying to blow me away I got to see her overcome everything to be a hero. But my own desire to be near my former student is not what is best for her. I sent Sunset back through the portal because I believe she should be somewhere without magic for a while. Not because I believe she would be corrupted again if she stayed here, but because I believe she would fear that too greatly to be truly happy.”

Twilight slowly nodded. “She’d probably be afraid of her magic for now, so it feels like the safest option. Sunset won’t grow if she’s consumed by fear.”

“Are you worried, Twilight?” asked Celestia.

Twilight looked over at her mentor, then around at her friends, and shook her head. “I trust my friends here, and I’ve seen that the ones in the human world are just like them. They’ve been taking care of Sunset all this time, and I believe they’ll continue to do so until the next time she returns. So, no, I’m not worried. I trust my friends, no matter what world they’re in. And because I believe in them, I believe that Sunset will overcome her fears and become someone just like me.”

“That would be a joyful thing.” Celestia smiled, putting a hoof on Twilight’s head and gently rubbing it. “If you trust in them, then so do I.”

Twilight walked up to the mirror, putting her hoof on it. The portal between the worlds was closed again, but that was of little concern to her.

“Do your best, Sunset. I believe in you!”

Epilogue: The old journal

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Sunset emerged on the other side of the portal. Looking down she saw she was human again. She looked around at the familiar school, but that was it. No one was waiting for her. She had expected her friends to be there to see which world she was gonna stay in.

Her heart began to ache. She had never wanted to see them more. Touching the base of the statue she saw it had turned solid again. Once more the connection between the worlds was severed.

She was alone… all alone. The weight of everything that had happened during her recent trip to Equestria felt physical, and she sat down in front of the statue, burying her head in her knees.

It all felt the same as the very first time she had come here. She made a bunch of mistakes and left to something new and exciting, only to feel scared and lonely once it was done. She began to cry, her arms wrapped around her legs.

It had seemed so easy to keep going surrounded by her friends, but now there was no one here but herself. She had really expected all of them to be anxiously waiting to see which side she would remain on. She really needed their support right now. Her heart felt so heavy and dark without them by her side.

She could always visit their houses, but she couldn’t muster the energy to stand.

Time seemed to be frozen. She didn’t know if time was passing at all. All she could hear was the sound of crickets chirping, the occasional car passing by, and her own breathing.

“Hey! Isn’t that-”

“It is!”

“Yeehaw! She’s back!”

Sunset’s head jerked up. She could never forget those voices. Turning her head to the left she saw the five of them in the moonlight and the headlights from the school.

“Woohoo!” Pinkie cried out, charging her and nearly knocking her over as she hugged Sunset.

Sunset was so relieved. The heaviness on her soul lessened. “You guys…” She let out a little sob, her eyes clenching shut.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” Pinkie asked, concerned. She pulled away to look Sunset over. “Are you hurt? Why are you crying?”

It was too much to take in all at once. There was so much to process and too much to say. Opening her eyes she said, “I… I just missed all of you so much. When I didn’t see you guys I thought… that maybe you had given up on me.”

“No way!” Rainbow said strongly.

“That’s right, Sugarcube,” said Applejack.

Rarity let out a tsk. “We were going to wait here most of the night, but security chased us away for loitering. We couldn’t exactly tell them we were waiting for a pony from another world to pop up through a magic portal in a statue.”

“So we’ve just been walking around and checking every half-hour or so.”

So they had been waiting for her. She let out a shuddering breath.

“So how’d it go?” asked Applejack. “Ya get everything settled with Celestia?”

The lightness in her heart faded. “Yes…”

“That’s sounds great, Sunset,” said Fluttershy. “But you don’t seem too happy about it.”

Sunset felt like her stomach might explode. Her breathing grew lighter.

“What’s wrong, darling?” asked Rarity.

“T-the whole thing was a disaster!” Sunset cried out. “I made so many mistakes and would up getting corrupted by this thing called the Alicorn Amulet and it turned me on my friends and I almost killed some of them!

“I’m… I’m so ashamed!” She squeezed Pinkie tight for support, lightly bawling into her shoulder.

All of them surrounded her, adding their hugs to the mix. “Oh, Sunset,” Fluttershy said mournfully. “I’m so sorry.”

“A-all I wanted was to make amends, but I wound up creating as many problems as I solved!”

“Come on, Sunset,” said Pinkie. “I think we should all go to my house for a sleepover so you can tell us all about it.”

Sunset didn’t know if she wanted to tell them all about it. She didn’t know if she could be completely open about all the terrible things she had done. Still… she had told them the basics of the story and they had responded with sympathy instead of scorn or anger. Wasn’t the lesson she had learned from everything not to keep all her feelings inside?

Reluctantly she agreed. “Okay. Let’s go.”

They helped her up and started the trek home. It felt so familiar to be walking these streets. Even though it had only been three days since she had left it felt like forever.

None of them intruded on the silence as they walked, but they huddled around her to provide a sense of closeness.

When they arrived they all headed for Pinkie’s room, sitting down. When they were comfortable they looked expectantly at Sunset.

Sunset looked around at them, feeling like her insides were on fire. She was terrified of losing them. If they couldn’t accept her now then what did she have left to live for?

Once again the words of the Rainbow Dash that had appeared from the Element came to her. Even though she had screwed up so badly Rainbow refused to abandon her. All of them encouraged her. They might not have been the real things, but they were based on the way she viewed them. And if what lay in her heart was anything like the real things in front of her then they would accept her too.

She opened her mouth, telling them all that had transpired. The beginning was easy: going to Twilight for help, telling her of the past, sleeping in a hammock, having breakfast, and chilling at a carnival.

The next part was harder. Putting on the Amulet, and hearing Stardust’s dual nature, one part kind, empathetic master, and one part desire for the death of Celestia. Talking about the ways he got into her head made her really think about how much of what he said was subjective, but that there was someone else who agreed with her so much only made her feel like all her complaints about Celestia were justified.

Just like when she was telling parts of the story to Celestia it all felt so stupid and obvious that she was simply being used. He had given her just enough room to let her think she was making her own choices, but was actually guiding her down one path all along.

She felt a dull ache inside of her as she spoke about the visions he had placed in her head. “He showed me the five of you in school, talking about how you hated me; how you were glad I was gone and it had been a huge waste of your time keeping an eye on me.” She hugged herself, crying. “That you thought I had been irredeemable from the start and were only being nice to me because Twilight asked you to.” She sniffed. “It hurt so much.”

Pinkie grabbed her in a hug. “That mean old Stardust!”

Rarity crossed her arms. “It’s clear what he was after. He wanted to distance you from us, or rather your memories of us. He couldn’t bend you to his will until you thought he was the only thing you had to rely on.”

Sunset nodded. “There was another one where the pony versions of you did much the same, Apple Bloom talking about how terrified she was to be near me.

“The final one showed Twilight meeting Celestia. She was the only one that stood up for me. Even though Celestia said she wanted me taken out Twilight defended me, saying she didn’t want to go through with it. Celestia got mad and attacked her, then put a spell on her that made her like an empty shell.

“Because I came to believe that what I saw in my nightmares were actually visions of the truth I thought that Twilight was a helpless victim. It was a no-win situation either way it went. Celestia would be at her least protected away from her Royal Guards and her sister Luna. Of course if I went after Celestia then Twilight would defend her, so even though I believed that taking Celestia down would break the spell she put on Twilight it wasn’t likely to happen.

“Even though I wanted to protect Twilight… in my mind there was only one way to do so: take her down permanently so that Celestia couldn’t control her anymore.”

Fluttershy put a hand to her mouth as she gasped.

Sunset rubbed her forehead. “I’m not proud of it, but it felt like the only option available to me. When Celestia saw what became of Twilight she’d be distracted for at least a few moments, which would have been the time I struck.”

Applejack crossed her arms as well. “This Stardust fella was a real piece of work, wasn’t he? He set everything up so he’d win in the end.”

After asking for a glass of water Sunset told them about the great battle between her and Twilight. Her friends gasped and ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ at the right places, but largely just let her talk. She was keeping the story in order up until she told them about Spike’s injuries. She emphasized that he was alive and his injuries healed up after the battle so they wouldn’t mourn over him.

“It drove Twilight past the brink when Celestia arrived and I attacked her. Drained of her regular magic but still wanting to protect her friends she accidentally drew on a different sort of strength: dark magic. Celestia had taught it to her in preparation for her trip to the Crystal Empire, as it was used by the one who conquered it long ago.

“That was when Stardust decided to abandon me. In our last big clash to see who deserved to live he flat-out told me that he had only been using me and that he had set me up to accomplish his own ends. It broke my spirit and crippled my ability to fight back, and I was engulfed in Twilight’s spell, but I was protected by her, Cadance, and Shining Armor.”

“What were those two doing there?” asked Rainbow. “And why abandon you? Didn’t he need you?”

“They sensed the dark magic through this artifact called the Crystal Heart.

“As for why… he had no further need of me. He wanted a better host than me.”

“Twilight?” Fluttershy asked in horror.

“Exactly. He expected me to die in that final clash. I’m assuming that if his current host dies that it negates the whole magical lock thing, or he himself can break it at any time. Either way, he expected Twilight to retrieve the Amulet from me, and then persuade her to put it on.

“Stardust did succeed at that. I didn’t get to warn Twilight before I fell unconscious, but the next time I arose she was wearing it and threatening to finish me off. Twilight was so emotionally drained that she more or less was letting him control her. Since Twilight was so furious with me she wouldn’t have much of an issue with that. He knew he couldn’t control her properly unless he broke her will, so he couldn’t attack the one he really wanted to.

“Ultimately I survived again because of friendship. Twilight’s friends protected me from her, and because Twilight loved her friends far more than she hated me she wouldn’t let them be collateral damage. It did eventually get to her, and she removed the Amulet, blasting it into pieces.”

“So that was that, huh?” Rainbow asked, imitating a laser. “Pachew! See ya! Game over!”

Sunset chuckled weakly. “I wish it had been that easy. Then again… if it was I might not have received so favorably a consequence.”

“What do you mean?” asked Rarity.

“The jewel had a crack in it from Twilight’s attack, but it only seemed to work out in his favor. His spirit emerged from it, and he could now use his magic freely. He thought it was great, as it meant Twilight wouldn’t be able to get rid of him when he tried to take her body again. He challenged Cadance to a contest of love verses hate, as that’s what their shield spells were based on.

“I knew Cadance wouldn’t win. Stardust had taken me and turned me inside out just from some words. I don’t think anyone could have beaten him head to head. I knew the only way to stop him was the Elements of Harmony. It took everything I had to get to where I had stashed it and return, but I didn’t want Twilight to suffer anymore.

“Stardust noticed me and knocked the Element away, trying to blow it up. I took the blow to keep the Element safe.”

“Way to go, Sunset!” Rainbow put her fist out, and Sunset meekly hit it with her own.

“I was at my limit. I couldn’t move. I had too many injuries. I was too tired to think. It felt like it should have been the end for all of us, but then… all of you showed up.”

“Pardon?” said Applejack, her eyebrow going up.

“What do you mean, Darling?” asked Rarity. “None of us went through the portal.”

“It wasn’t really you guys,” Sunset replied. “Celestia told me that the Element saved me from Stardust’s attack because I genuinely intended to die for my friends. Similarly, it created images of you from the depths of my heart to remind me not to give in or give up to him.

“All of you encouraged me, and gave strength to my heart. Even though I was exhausted and hurt I pressed on just a little further to finish my mission to save Twilight and the rest.” Sunset grinned as she remembered all of them in a circle, holding out their hands for her to complete it.

“I passed out right after I sent Twilight the Element, so I didn’t see the end of the battle. The next time I woke up I was staring right into the eyes of Celestia.”

“Oh, dear,” said Fluttershy timidly. “That must have been scary.”

“It should have been…” Sunset thought of that moment. “I woke up, knowing what I had done. And yet… Celestia wasn’t angry or upset. She looked down at me with compassion and love and worry and concern.” A tear came down Sunset’s cheek. “In that moment all of my fears left me, and I did what I meant to all along: I apologized from my heart, becoming a sobbing mess.” She closed her eyes, almost feeling Celestia around her again. “She pulled me close to her, telling me she was glad to see me and she had missed me.”

“Well, shoot!” Applejack said happily. “That musta been wonderful to hear.”

Sunset raised her arms, hugging an invisible Celestia. “It really was,” she said warmly.

Dropping her arms she opened her eyes and continued, “As I said before we healed Spike with the Elements, Celestia addressed the citizens of Ponyville to let them know everything was okay, and Celestia told us about Stardust’s origins. He had previously been the student of Starswirl but had gone bad, much like me with Celestia. Celestia wasn’t sure whether he had always been like that or whether he just fell to darkness over time.”

She got a thoughtful look on her face. “The Alicorn Amulet corrupts the user. From what me and Twilight gathered Stardust’s manipulations are only half of the equation. He can try and talk you into doing something you’d rather not, but until you actually do it you’re blameless. Once you’ve reached that point you can either keep going or back off and try to make amends.

“Celestia tried to stop Starswirl from creating the Alicorn Transformation spell because of the risk of misuse, but Stardust ignored that and continued on until Starswirl caught him. They got into a fight over it and Stardust took Starswirl’s life.”

Her eyes narrowed a bit, the question stronger in her mind. “Maybe… what he did to other ponies is what happened to him.”

“What do you mean?” asked Pinkie, putting her head on her knees.

“Of course I could be completely off-base. Stardust might have always had malicious intentions. Celestia did say Starswirl was a pony that could get completely swept up in creating new spells for months at a time, so this is just a theory.

“What if Stardust felt guilty for going against both his mentor and Celestia’s admonishments to leave the spell unfinished? When Starswirl caught him he might have reacted on impulse and attacked. I remember that I was all nervous after Stardust planted those nightmares in my head, and I attacked Zecora.”

Sunset kneaded her hands together. “Maybe Stardust’s biggest fault is that he didn’t know when to back down. He couldn’t give up after coming so far.” She ran a hand through her hair. “Or maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part.

“The thing is… Stardust… he reminds me so much of me when I first arrived here. I felt so superior, being trained by someone so high up on the ladder. I had genuine talent. Once I felt distanced from Celestia I began to believe I could only rely on myself and my own abilities…” She drifted off.

They gave her a little time, but eventually Pinkie grew impatient. “Come on, Sunset! There’s something on your mind. What are you thinking about so hard in there?”

“If Stardust had only been honest with me… told me the real, honest truth, then maybe I could have helped him the right way. Instead, he was too deep in his sea of lies and excuses to ever think of turning back from his anger and grudges, and corrupted me by doing the same thing, reminding me of how I felt back then.”

She slowly lifted her hands, looking at them. “I guess… I’m just wondering… why me? Why did I survive, but Stardust didn’t? We each did terrible things, became corrupted, corrupted others, and tried to take over the world… but… I’m still here, and he isn’t. I got a second chance from Twilight, and then again from Celestia. So… why me?”

Sympathetic tears came down her eyes. “It must seem so crazy and pathetic, but I’m actually mourning Stardust’s death right now. If he had only known how wonderful it felt to have someone you can trust with your heart and your soul like I learned, then maybe he could have redeemed himself as well.” Her hands clenched into fists, and then fell to her sides. “I don’t know,” she said weakly. “Maybe I’m not making any sense.”

Applejack moved a little closer to her, putting an arm around her neck. “I think yer makin’ perfect sense, actually. Ya had similar beginnings, but eventually ya got ta make some friends that gave ya a reason ta keep goin’ on. Stardust never did.”

“Don’t let Stardust’s fate weight too heavily on you, Darling,” said Rarity. “He made his choices and eventually had to take responsibility for them. The same with you. Consider it fate or good luck or whatever you want to, but in the end you survived.”

Sunset’s mind turned back to that one glorious moment that changed her life. “All I’ve ever done since being here is tear everyone apart. I don’t know the first thing about friendship.”

Twilight reached out her hand, helping her up. “I bet they can teach you.”

That one act of kindness had turned her whole world around. Even though everyone else treated her with contempt, not that she didn’t deserve it, the five of them had always been by her side since that day. And it was only through them that she eventually began to win over some of the others and felt like she could endure any hardships that came her way.

She shuddered as her nightmare came back to her as well. Stardust, emerging from her body, pulling out a blackened heart with a tidal wave of darkness inside it, just waiting to come out. She felt cold, like he really had left a piece of himself behind in her. It wasn’t true in the literal sense, but in the memories she had of trying to destroy her friends and Celestia. His darkness was still clinging to her, and she couldn’t fight it off alone.

Her breathing grew short. “P-please!” she sputtered out. “Promise me you won’t abandon me for all this. Tell me you’ll always be by my side like before.” Her eyes were wide as she trembled. “I-I-I feel like I’m being swallowed up by his remains. I don’t want to go back there again! To that cold, lonely place.”

Rising up they surrounded her, ten arms wrapping around her.

“No way!” Pinkie said. “You’re not going back there.”

“We stood behind ya before, and we’re here for ya all the way,” said Applejack.

“Friends don’t abandon friends!” Rainbow said strongly, “Especially one that’s trying hard to change herself.”

“That’s right,” said Rarity. “We’re not letting go of you, ever!”

“Our hearts are with you, Sunset,” said Fluttershy, “Now and forever!”

Sunset’s breathing grew deeper. Hands were still being held out to her, pulling her up out of her despair. They weren’t going to leave her for her mistakes. That was the most important thing to her. So long as they were with her she had nothing to fear.

Things wouldn’t be perfect between them. They’d break apart at times, but always come back together in the end.

She felt their five hearts, blazing with their love for her. It made her feel inspired too. She shook off the fears and doubts holding her own back, letting it join in theirs as she hugged them back.

Her heart shined brightly, and she thought of Twilight. ‘Thank you, my dear friend. I’ll make you proud of me, Twilight, so you better do the same.’

Even though she had partied and had a sleepover with her pony friends she had been plagued by too many doubts and worries to really enjoy it. This time as they partied the night away she felt light as air. Nothing bothered her.

After guzzling soda, eating snacks, playing video games, watching movies, and dancing they all were pretty wiped. Though the other five eventually conked out Sunset remained awake. She wasn’t upset or scared, but just thinking.

Twilight and Celestia had both seen her potential for good. They had seen who she truly was behind all her layers of defenses. That was why they hadn’t locked her up or sealed her away. They wanted to see her succeed and excel, and had provided her the means to do so. Sunset smiled as she looked around at her sleeping friends.

Sunset thought of something she had forgotten about for a long time. Tiptoeing towards the door so as not to wake the others she left Pinkie’s room, heading to the next room over.

She flipped on the light switch, seeing her own modest room. Pinkie had talked her parents into moving her in after they had all become friends. She had mainly been sleeping in the school once she enrolled, but she was eventually caught. Since then she had been sleeping anywhere she could find at night.

When Pinkie’s parents heard that she was homeless they agreed to let her move in. In the few years since her last visit through the portal Pinkie’s oldest sister, Maud, had gone to college, leaving an empty room.

She opened the closet, moving stuff around and going into a cardboard box. She pulled several items out until she pulled out a book emblazoned with the red and orange sun of her cutie mark. She rubbed off the dust on it, then sat down at the desk.

It was a magical book that the two shared. Celestia had a similar one with her own cutie mark on it. If one of them wrote in their book it appeared in the other one’s book.

She opened the book to the beginning, memories going through her. She poured over the entries, telling of successes she’d had in mastering particularly tricky spells, or just to simply ask how she was doing. When she was younger her entries were more silly, like “Ha, ha, I’m wasting your time making you read this!” That one made her chuckle and slap her forehead. As she grew and matured her journal entries similarly grew more serious.

Whether they were long or short, or serious or silly, Celestia always responded back to her, usually in the same tone. Celestia’s reply to the one about wasting her time made her eyes shine with tears. “You couldn’t ever waste my time, Sunset, because I always love hearing from you, my wonderful student.” Right next to that was a drawn happy face and a heart.

Celestia had been a mother figure to her, as well as a friend. With her sister being locked up for so long Celestia had to have been terribly lonely. Ponies expected her to be strong. She barely even opened up to Twilight or her about her true feelings. How hard must it have been to always smile during those hard times?

The happy tears that had been forming grew sadder. “I always love hearing from you.” She had been a bright spot of light in Celestia’s life, easing her loneliness and pain. And then she had run away from Celestia, leaving her lonely again until Twilight came along.

She was a fool. Celestia acknowledged her own mistake in not being more forthcoming with what she expected. Now she had to acknowledge her own in not trusting that the one that had raised her with love and respect all her life knew what she was doing.

She put a hand to her heart, quietly crying. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “I promise… this time I’m not going to let you down. I’m going to work harder than I’ve ever worked before. You won’t even recognize me by the time I see you again.”

When she finished going through her old back and forths with Celestia she noticed the book was only half full. She pulled out a pen from a drawer, curious. After all these years, and with the portal closed, would it still work?

Even if the magic of the book didn’t work, or if Celestia had thrown away her copy, it would serve as a perfect journal to keep track of her progress.

She felt a strange excitement bubbling inside of her. Setting the pen to the next blank page she began writing the words she hadn’t written in over a decade.

“Dear Princess Celestia…”